RICHMOND, Va. — The capital of Virginia is bracing for the arrival on Monday of busloads of demonstrators from across the state and around the nation who are angry over a series of gun-control measures making their way through the state Legislature.
Along with mainstream gun-rights activists, the event is also expected to attract white supremacists, members of antigovernment militias and other extremists, stoking fears of the sort of violence that left one person dead and some two dozen others injured in 2017 during a far-right rally in Charlottesville, about an hour’s drive from Richmond.
Hoping to head off trouble this time, state officials have set up a security zone around the State Capitol and have banned weapons on its grounds. Here is what you need to know as the day begins.
‘Lobby Day’ and the gun issue
For years, Martin Luther King’s Birthday, which falls early in the legislative session, has been a day for ordinary Virginians and advocacy groups to lobby state legislators on issues that concern them. But this year, gun rights groups made especially big plans for “Lobby Day.”
That is because control of the legislature flipped in the November election. After a generation of dominance by Republicans sympathetic to gun rights, the State Senate and House of Delegates are now run by Democrats who want to impose tighter regulations — measures that have become increasingly popular in the state, especially after a gunman fatally shot 12 people last May in Virginia Beach.
The State Senate approved three gun control bills last week that the House of Delegates could approve as early as this week. The prospect of new laws restricting firearms has met with stiff opposition in the state’s rural areas, though. Since November, more than 100 municipalities have declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries” — a purely symbolic step, but one that highlights the widening rift in Virginia between its cities and its rural areas, which have been losing population and political power for years.
Gun rights groups from other states have also taken notice and are sending supporters to the event in Richmond.
What we expect at the scene
Participants in the gun rights rally plan to start arriving at the State Capitol grounds in car pools, vans and about 60 charter buses early in the morning — at 8 a.m. or before.
The rally is scheduled to get underway at 11 a.m. and last until noon. It is being organized by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a well-known Second Amendment advocacy organization in the state. The group has said it expected the protest to be peaceful. But it has also accepted help from militia groups to provide security for the rally, and friction with counterprotesters is possible during the event and afterward.
The organizers have told law enforcement authorities that as many as 100,000 people could show up. More than 6,000 people have posted on the event’s Facebook page saying that they planned to attend.
“People paint gun owners with a very broad brush,” said Brendan Mooney, 29, a gun rights activist who recently left the Navy, and who said he will be at the rally. “I’m not ‘Billy Bob’ or ‘Jimbo.’ I’m a 20-something and I’m passionate about this. The Second Amendment was written so we can defend ourselves against a government that can overreach.”
Why are the police concerned?
Besides gun rights advocates, the event is also expected to draw white supremacists and anti-government extremists. Several men who have ties to right-wing militia groups and who planned to attend the rally have been arrested in the past week.
In response to fears about the potential for violent clashes, the state has set up a security perimeter around the Capitol grounds and has banned weapons — including firearms — from the grounds through Tuesday. There will be just one public entrance to the grounds, and anyone who wants to enter will be required to pass through a metal detector there. Long lines are likely to form.
The authorities say they will try to separate gun rights activists from counterprotesters, but with everyone having to use the single entrance to the Capitol grounds, confrontations may develop just outside that entrance or in the surrounding streets, where weapons will still be allowed.
What do the rally participants want?
Gun rights supporters acknowledge that, despite their opposition, a number of gun control measures are likely to be approved in the current legislative session and signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat. But gun owners think they may be able to persuade a few Democratic lawmakers to oppose some measures, including a proposed ban on assault-style rifles.
Karen Greenhalgh, who said she would drive an hour and a half to Richmond from Virginia Beach on Monday, said the chance to meet her representative at the Capitol was so important to her that she would leave her .380-caliber Smith & Wesson pistol at home.
“I’m going to tell him how important the Constitution is to me, and that if we don’t follow the Constitution, then what will we become?” she said. But because she will not be allowed to carry a weapon onto the Capitol grounds this year, she said, “I’m going to have to give up my Constitutional right to do that — to talk to my legislator.”