Thousands of gun rights advocates, including dozens of armed militias, gathered in the US state of Virginia on Monday in a rally that many feared could have turned violent.
The event ended peacefully amid heavy security after the state’s Governor Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency, which banned all weapons from the Capitol grounds in Richmond through Tuesday.
While officials estimated about 6,000 people entered the Capitol Square to lobby against new gun control measures currently making their way through the state legislature, 16,000 others chose to stay off the grounds with many openly touting their guns.
“We the people of Virginia will not stand idly by and allow ill-intended advances that strip law-abiding citizens of our constitutional freedoms and Second Amendment rights, so help us God,” state Senator Amanda Chase told the crowd inside the fenced-in area at the Capitol Square.
The “Lobby Day” event, organised by Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL), has traditionally seen gun rights advocates take to the capital to lobby legislators against gun control measures.
This year sparked fears of violence, however, after dozens of militia groups said they would attend the event.
“We have received credible intelligence from our law enforcement agencies of threats of violence surrounding the demonstration planned for Monday, January 20,” Northam said when declaring the state of emergency.
“This includes extremist rhetoric similar to what has been seen before major incidents, such as Charlottesville in 2017,” he tweeted, referring to the Virginia white supremacist rally in which a neo-Nazi rammed his car into a group of anti-racist protesters, killing 32-year-old anti-racist demonstrator Heather Heyer.
Several men with links to the neo-Nazi collective, The Base, were arrested last week. Law enforcement said some of the men planned to attend Monday’s rally with the intention to commit violence.
Militia groups and other activists said Monday’s event was important in the face of a newly elected Democratic state legislature.
Three gun control measures passed the state Senate last week. Those bills include limits of the purchases of handguns, background checks for firearm transfers and a measure that would enable local governments to ban guns in parks and other public spaces. The governor and Democrats also support other measures, including a ban on assault-style rifles and a so-called “red flag” bill, which would allow law enforcement and lawyers to seek emergency orders to confiscate or block the sale of firearms to anyone deemed “a substantial risk of injury to himself or others”.
“Your 2nd Amendment is under very serious attack in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia,” US President Donald Trump tweeted last week. On Monday, he urged Virginia residents to vote Democrats out of office.
Howard Graves, a senior research analyst with the Southern Poverty Law Center watchdog group, said, “There’s this understanding or belief that Virginia is this red bastion and within that, it’s also the old capital of the Confederacy.”
That understanding, Graves told Al Jazeera, “has kind of amplified some of the underlying concerns about what’s happening in that state with a Governor Northam’s promised agenda of actually delivering on firearms legislation”.
Democrats and gun control advocates say the measures are needed following recent mass shootings, including one in Virginia last year in which 12 people were killed when a gunman opened fire inside a city government building in Virginia Beach.
“We WILL be passing common sense gun violence prevention legislation THIS YEAR,” tweeted Alfonso Lopez, a Democratic member of the Virginia House of Delegates, in advance of Monday’s rally.
As of Monday afternoon, one arrest was reported. Some online were angered that it appeared that those in attendance at Monday’s rally were mostly allowed to wear face masks, which were largely outlawed years ago to combat the Ku Klux Klan.
“This crowd had lots of people blatantly violating VA’s laws against masking and against open carrying certain weapons in the City of Richmond,” tweeted Lee Carter, a Democratic members of the House of Delegates. “There was zero enforcement of these laws, which are routinely enforced against left wing protests.”
According to officials, the one individual who was arrested was taken into custody after police repeatedly warned her not to cover her face with a bandanna.
Anti-fascists and other activists, who typically counter large mobilisations of far-right groups, largely stayed away from Monday’s event, citing credible threats of violence.
One is a group of adults getting ready to discuss common sense reforms with lawmakers.
The other is a man carrying a .50 caliber to protest background checks.
— Brandon Wolf (@bjoewolf) January 20, 2020
A coalition of gun control groups also cancelled their annual vigil for victims of gun violence.
A small group from gun-control advocacy group March For Our Lives, however, camped out inside the offices of the state General Assembly, where they met with legislators on Monday and held a small gathering to remember those killed due to gun violence.
“Today was a huge success and we were glad not only to advance our lifesaving agenda with legislators, but also to serve as a moral counterweight to the hate and division on display in the streets,” said Michael McCabe, political director of March for Our Lives Virginia.
“We were still able to hold a small gathering on the Capitol steps and to carry on the solemn 28-year tradition,” the 17-year-old told Al Jazeera.
Thank you to the incredible @ChrisHurstVA and @HelmerVA for allowing us to stay in your offices to ensure we could be safe and still be able to be in Richmond to represent the VA gun sense majority and coalition of gun violence prevention groups. #IStandWithVirginia pic.twitter.com/MuA0hoqcUX
— Eve Levenson 📢 (@eve_levenson) January 20, 2020