(Associated Press) Thousands of gun-rights activists — some brandishing their military-style rifles — crowded the streets surrounding Virginia’s Capitol building Monday to protest plans by the state’s Democratic leadership to pass gun-control legislation.
Gov. Ralph Northam declared a temporary state of emergency days ahead of the rally, banning all weapons, including guns, from the event on Capitol Square. The expected participation of fringe militia groups and white supremacists raised fears the state could again see the type of violence that exploded at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville in 2017.
The Richmond protesters, who were mostly white and male, came out in strong numbers Monday despite the chilly temperature to send a message to legislators, they said.
“The government doesn’t run us, we run the government,” said Kem Regik, a 20-year-old private security officer from northern Virginia who brought a white flag with a picture of a rifle captioned, “Come and take it.”
Northam was a particular focus of the protester’s wrath. One poster showed his face superimposed on Adolph Hitler’s body.
Many of the protesters wore camouflage. Some waved flags with messages of support for President Donald Trump.
Trump, in turn, tweeted support for their goals.
“The Democrat Party in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia are working hard to take away your 2nd Amendment rights,” he tweeted. “This is just the beginning. Don’t let it happen, VOTE REPUBLICAN in 2020!
The Virginia State Police, the Virginia Capitol Police and the Richmond Police had a strong presence, with officers deploying on rooftops, others patrolling in cars and on bicycles. In contrast to Charlottesville, there was little sign of any counterprotesters challenging the gun-rights activists.
Police limited access to Capitol Square to only one entrance and have warned rally-goers they may have to wait hours to get past security screening.
As the crowd on the street grew, advocates also filled the hallways of the building that houses lawmakers’ offices. One couple, Jared and Marie March, traveled from Floyd County, over three hours west of Richmond, to meet with lawmakers.
“Guns are a way of life where we live,” said Marie March, who was concerned about a proposed red-flag law which she said would allow citizens to be stripped of their guns due to “subjective criteria.” A proposal to establish universal background checks amounted to “more Big Brother,” she said. “”We just feel like we need to push government back into their rightful spot.”
Monday’s rally was organized by an influential grassroots gun-rights group, the Virginia Citizens Defense League. The group holds a yearly rally at the Capitol, typically a low-key event with a few hundred gun enthusiasts listening to speeches from a handful of ambitious Republican lawmakers. But this year, many more were expected. Second Amendment groups have identified the state as a rallying point for the fight against what they see as a national erosion of gun rights.
The pushback against proposed new gun restrictions began immediately after Democrats won majorities in both the state Senate and House of Delegates in November. Much of the opposition has focused on a proposed assault weapons ban.
Virginia Democrats are also backing bills limiting handgun purchases to once a month, implementing universal background checks on gun purchases, allowing localities to ban guns in public buildings, parks and other areas, and a red flag bill that would allow authorities to temporarily take guns away from anyone deemed to be dangerous to themselves or others.
Jesse Lambert was dressed in mix of Colonial-era minute-man garb and cargo pants, with a Colt rifle strapped across his back. He said he traveled from Louisiana to show opposition to the gun control bills. He said their efforts would unfairly punish law-abiding gun owners, particularly those who own AR-Style rifles.
“These are your average common people carrying firearms that are in common use,” he said.