RICHMOND, Va. ─ Thousands of gun-rights activists, banned from carrying their weapons out of fear of violence, crammed into the Virginia Capitol on Monday to urge state lawmakers to reject sweeping measures to limit the spread of firearms.
The rally, planned for weeks as part of a citizen-lobbying tradition held on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, has focused national attention on Virginia's attempts to enact new gun regulations, pushed by Democrats who took control of the Statehouse for the first time in 26 years. Gun control supporters say they are acting on voters' wishes, propelled by a May mass shooting in Virginia Beach.
Gun-rights proponents warn that the measures ─ including universal background checks, a ban on military-style rifles and a bill that would allow authorities to temporarily take guns from people deemed dangerous to themselves or others ─ will snowball into attempts to disarm the public.
"We will not comply," activists chanted from both sides of a security fence ringing the Capitol grounds. The crowd was largely white and diverse in age, with most wearing orange stickers saying "Guns save lives." Many rode chartered buses from all over the state, then waited hours in line to get into the Capitol grounds before passing through airport-style security. On the other side of the fence, many activists openly carried firearms, including long guns.
Many on both sides of the gun debate in Virginia, as well as Richmond residents and business owners, feared that the rally would be a repeat of the violent 2017 protest in Charlottesville that ended in a woman's death. Gun safety groups canceled a Martin Luther King Day vigil at the Capitol that was supposed to begin after the gun rights rally.
There were no apparent signs of violence as of 11 a.m., when the rally officially began.
Nicholas Freitas, a Republican member of the Virginia House of Delegates, spoke to supporters outside the Capitol cordon, many of whom were armed. Freitas, who represents three counties in northern Virginia, said the threat of violence from outside groups was overblown, and that Northam had been wrong to issue the weapons ban. He said he felt safer there than “inside those cages” where the gun ban was being enforced.
“I’m not going to tell one of my constituents who is a law abiding gun owner who has never broken the law, I'm not going to tell them you have to chose between lobbying me or having the means to defend yourself,” Freitas told reporters. “That shouldn’t be an either-or proposition.”
Jay Lowe, who was in the crowd on the Capitol grounds, said gun-control supporters were wrong to think that people were safer where firearms were restricted. “So many people are misinformed and think you are safer because you take my guns away," Lowe, who lives in Chesterfield County, south of Richmond, said. “My guns have never killed anybody. And I carry a lot."
Lowe also said he was angry that the rally had been tainted by links to hate groups.
"They are not the right. Conservatives are the right. We are not like those people,” Lowe said. “If there are Nazis here, white supremacists, they are not welcome by me. I do not want them on my side ever.”
Last week, Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, declared of state of emergency that banned guns and other weapons from the Capitol grounds, citing "credible intelligence" from law enforcement that armed militias and hate groups were threatening violence. Gun-rights groups, led by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, which organized the rally, tried unsuccessfully to get a court to overturn the ban.
A day after Northam's announcement, federal authorities said they had arrested of three members of a neo-Nazi group called The Base, whom law enforcement officials said had been planning to attend the rally. More alleged members of the group were arrested on Friday.
There were some signs of militia members in the crowd on Monday, but the rally seemed made up largely of ordinary gun-control supporters, including many sporting shirts and hats proclaiming their support of President Donald Trump. There were chants calling on Northam to resign and shouts calling journalists "fake news."
On Sunday night, as activists prepared for the rally, there were tense exchanges around the Capitol. A group of men interrupted a television reporter who referred to “extremist groups from out of town," saying they were "freedom lovers, patriots." Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones filmed a video at the top of the Capitol steps. A group of people identified themselves as members of the Proud Boys, a far-right organization designated a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center that has clashed with anti-fascist demonstrators in other parts of the country.
Ben Kesslen reporter from Richmond, Jon Schuppe from New York.