Virginia braces for gun-rights rally as worries over violence, hate groups and militias grow
RICHMOND, Va. — Threats of violence, including claims of a militia storming Virginia’s Capitol and protesters weaponizing drones, have put federal and state authorities on high alert ahead of Monday’s gun-rights rally.
Thousands of people across the country are expected to show up as part of a demonstration demanding state Democrats drop a push for comprehensive gun control in the commonwealth. The fear of violence has spread quickly and has led to heightened security, road closures and a ban on firearms in the Capitol and on its grounds. An event memorializing victims of gun violence, including one honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., was canceled due to safety concerns. The Federal Aviation Administration has banned drones within a 2-mile radius of the Capitol and nearby students at VCU and the Medical College of Virginia have been encouraged to stay indoors.
Virginia Citizens Defense League President Philip Van Cleave told Fox News it’s not the pro-gun groups that are stoking fear.
“It’s the Democrats,” he said. “It’s almost like they want something to happen. It sounds crazy, but they keep doing it and you have to start wondering if that’s intentional.”
Cleave said membership in his organization has tripled in the past six weeks and that 10,000 people have signed up for free email alerts. He attributes the spike in popularity to Gov. Ralph Northam and Democrats in the state legislature. Van Cleave believes they have “declared war on gun owners” and is counting on gun-rights advocates to show up Monday to have their collective voices heard.
“It’s woken up gun owners across the state.”— Philip Van Cleave, president of Virginia Citizens Defense League
“It’s woken up gun owners across the state,” he said.
Jaylynne Sensy, a mother of three from Chesterfield County, told Fox News she’s planning on coming to the rally and bringing her three children with her.
“They’re trying to take our guns and that’s not going to happen,” she said. “We won’t stand for it. This wouldn’t happen if Republicans were still running things.”
In November, Democrats flipped the state Senate and the House of Delegates, giving them control of both the governor’s office and the legislature for the first time in a generation.
Following his reelection, Northam vowed to push through new gun-control measures, saying it was a top priority for Virginia Democrats. In doing so, he angered gun-rights advocates who believe he is trying to take away their rights.
That suspicion was fueled further on Friday when President Trump warned in a tweet that Virginia Democrats were threatening Americans’ right to bear arms.
“Your 2nd Amendment is under very serious attack in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia. That’s what happens when you vote for Democrats, they will take your guns away. Republicans will win Virginia in 2020. Thank you Dems!” he tweeted.
Last week, four gun-control bills advanced in the General Assembly, setting the stage for a contentious showdown between gun-rights advocates and the Democratic lawmakers who campaigned on bringing changes to the state following last year’s mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal complex.
The bills that sailed through the Senate Judiciary Committee would require background checks on all firearms purchases, allow law enforcement to temporarily remove guns from people deemed to be a risk to themselves or others, limit handgun purchases to one a month and let localities decide on whether to ban weapons from certain events. To become law, the bills would have to pass the full Senate and the House of Delegates before going to the governor for his signature.
In a symbolic sign of defiance, more than 100 municipalities in Virginia have designated themselves as a safe haven or sanctuary for the Second Amendment. Lawmakers and authorities in those areas have said they will refuse to enforce new gun control laws the Virginia Legislature passes.
Monday’s rally comes about 2 1/2 years after a deadly incident in Charlottesville, Va. In that case, hundreds of white nationalists and their supporters gathered in Charlottesville — about 70 miles from Richmond — to demonstrate over plans to remove a Confederate statute. They were met by counter-protesters and violence quickly erupted. At one point, a vehicle drove into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing one and injuring more than a dozen others.
Fearing a similar scenario, Northam declared a state of emergency ahead of Richmond’s rally. He also banned firearms and other weapons on the Capitol grounds.
“We have received credible intelligence from our enforcement agencies that there are groups with malicious plans for the rally that is planned for Monday,” Northam said during a press conference on Wednesday.
“Any group that comes to Richmond to spread white supremacist garbage, or any other form of hate, violence or civil unrest isn’t welcome here.”— Todd Gilbert, Republican Leader, Virginia House of Delegates
House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert called the upcoming rally “a time for people to peacefully assemble and petition their government.”
“It is not a place for hate or violence,” he said in a statement. “Any group that comes to Richmond to spread white supremacist garbage, or any other form of hate, violence or civil unrest isn’t welcome here.”
On Thursday, authorities announced the arrest of three men linked to the Base, a white extremist, anti-government group that has been tracked by the Federal Bureau of Investigation. The men, who obtained weapons and discussed going to the Richmond rally, were charged with a number of federal crimes in Maryland. A day later, law enforcement announced the arrest of at least four other men tied to the group.
Northam later said the majority of those planning to attend Monday’s rally had no interest in fanning the flames of hate but acknowledged there were still a few hellbent on it.