Hundreds of advocates on both sides of the gun debate converged on the Capitol today.
About half of them were armed.
The advocates, representing the Virginia Citizens Defense League and the Virginia Center for Public Safety, were among the hundreds of citizens who took advantage of the Martin Luther King holiday to press their case to lawmakers on issues ranging from legalization of marijuana to mental health reform.
The gun-rights advocates of the VCDL occupied the area of the Capitol Bell Tower in the morning, carrying a variety of weapons ranging from handguns to AR-15 rifles and wearing blaze orange stickers proclaiming “Guns Save Lives.”
VCDL vice president Dennis O'Connor described efforts to preserve and expand gun rights in the commonwealth as “a continuing fight, a never-ending battle.”
VCDL president Philip Van Cleave said the group's mission is to get as many bills to Gov. Terry McAuliffe's desk as possible, even though McAuliffe has taken positions at odds with much of the group's agenda, including the governor's support for criminal background checks of firearms transactions.
“Background Checks Save Lives,” was the message on the yellow stickers worn by an equal number of gun-control advocates who gathered at the Bell Tower in the afternoon to commemorate the 822 people in the state who died from gunfire in 2012.
First Lady Dorothy McAuliffe, Lieutenant Gov. Ralph Northam, Attorney General Mark Herring and Democratic lawmakers joined advocates for tighter gun regulations and families of victims in the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting massacre.
Sen. A. Donald McEachin, D-Henrico, said the show of support is not about opposing the right to bear arms, but “to make sure those people who are disqualified from having guns don't get their hands on them.”
Most Democrats favor background checks, while most Republicans favor expanding access and ease of use for gun owners. The division between the parties in the state legislature and the executive branch means that few, if any, legislative proposals are likely to be passed or signed into law this session.
This session, gun rights advocates would like to see passage of a bill allowing lifetime permits for concealed handgun permit carriers, who currently must renew every five years.
In addition to background checks, gun-control advocates would like to see people convicted on misdemeanor domestic abuse charges prohibited from possessing a firearm.
The rallies did not conflict and were peaceful, unfolding amid a strong presence of Capitol Police. police prohibited supporters at either rally from affixing signs to sticks, calling it a public safety issue.