Hours before dawn on Monday, a bus packed with gun-rights advocates is scheduled to leave Pulaski County on a 230-mile trek to Richmond. Don Holt, whose sporting goods store is chartering the bus, isn’t expecting a single empty seat.
Holt, 62, said there’s much energy and anticipation leading up to a rally Monday that organizers expect to bring tens of thousands of people to the steps of Virginia’s Capitol to argue against gun-control measures Democratic lawmakers are putting forward.
“Buses are full and there are many, many more people that want to go,” he said in a phone interview from his store in Draper. “They don’t want to drive because of the congestion, but we had to turn them away.”
In Richmond, Holt and other rally attendees will be met with heightened security, road closures and a ban on firearms in the Capitol and on its grounds as state officials warn of potentially violent demonstrations and threats to public safety.
It’s a stark departure from gun rallies in years past — a January staple at Virginia’s Capitol — and all signs point to this gathering being unlike any other.
Tensions over gun control in Virginia have been on the rise for months, and organizers say Monday’s crowd could swell to 50,000 people, some of whom will be armed. Law enforcement officials say the event has attracted outside groups that could pose threats to public safety, from claims of an armed storming of the Capitol to weaponized drones. The Federal Aviation Administration has banned drones within a 2-mile radius of the Capitol on Monday.
Lawmakers plan to go on with their business as usual. But already, an event memorializing the dozens of victims of gun violence in Virginia this year, and another honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. during the state holiday in his honor, have been canceled due to safety concerns. Nonessential state employees have been asked to stay home.
State officials have flagged threats on social media linked to white supremacist and militia groups seeking to attach their causes to the rally. On Thursday, the FBI announced the arrests on weapons charges of three men in Maryland and Delaware connected to a white supremacist group, who planned to travel to the Richmond rally, according to law enforcement.
That has raised concerns about what happened at the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in which white supremacists clashed with counterprotesters and a car attack left a woman dead and 30 people injured.
“Virginians have the right to assemble. And I believe in the right to bear arms. But what we have seen and heard in recent weeks has the potential to go far beyond these constitutionally protected rights,” Gov. Ralph Northam said Wednesday as he declared a state of emergency in Richmond. “We are seeing threats of violence.”
House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said in a statement Saturday: “Lobby Day is a time for people to peacefully assemble and petition their government. It is not a place for hate or violence. 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.”
Northam’s declaration included a ban on firearms on the Capitol grounds, a move that rankled organizers and some participants who planned to bring firearms to the rally. Gun activists unsuccessfully challenged the ban in court.
The rally’s main organizer, the Virginia Citizens Defense League, says threats are coming from outside groups that are not linked with the peaceful rally the group is encouraging.
Holt agreed. “Our side don’t want any problems at all,” he said. “We are only coming to lobby, not to protest and start problems.”
Signs that Monday’s rally would be a larger and more intense demonstration followed the November election in which Democrats won control of the state House and Senate, vowing to boost gun control in the state.
Municipal meetings swelled with residents angered and fearful of measures they see as a violation of their Second Amendment right to bear arms. Officials in more than 100 counties, cities and towns across the state responded by declaring their localities “Second Amendment sanctuaries,” a largely symbolic move of support for gun rights.
Democrats in Virginia, as in other states with Democratic majorities or sizable minorities, point to high-profile mass shootings, domestic violence, suicide and community strife in an effort to defend legislative action on guns.
They argue that curbing access to guns by people who may be at risk of causing harm to themselves or others, and limiting firearms that can claim many lives quickly, can reduce the number of deadly incidents. After the May 31 mass shooting in Virginia Beach in which a disgruntled city employee killed 12 people, Northam called on Democrats to unify behind the issue.
Some of the gun-control measures Northam is backing have already moved ahead in the Senate, which approved a measure to restore the one-handgun-a-month law as well as bills calling for universal background checks and increased local authority over guns in public places.
Most Republican senators opposed those measures, with a few exceptions. Sens. Siobhan Dunnavant, R-Henrico, and Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta, voted in favor of universal background checks.
President Donald Trump weighed in Friday evening, tweeting: “Your [Second] 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!”
Mike Evans, who is traveling on a bus from Southampton County to Richmond with other gun activists, said in an interview: “[Northam] needs to back down and stop controlling people’s way of living.” He added: “We are free Americans, and he needs to leave us alone.”
A potential ban on assault weapons has caused the most consternation among gun-rights activists. One bill by Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, particularly rankled activists; it would have expanded the definition of an assault firearm, made it a felony to carry one, and included no exemption for current gun owners.
Saslaw ultimately withdrew that bill, and there are currently no other proposals in the Senate to ban assault weapons.
The Northam administration is backing a version of the assault weapons ban filed by Del. Mark Levine, D-Alexandria, which would ban semiautomatic rifles or pistols with magazines that hold more than 10 rounds.
If passed, the bill would go into effect in July. It includes a grandfather clause promised by the Northam administration that would allow people who already own an assault weapon to obtain a permit from the state for restricted use. Without a permit, the guns would have to be disposed of, surrendered or made inoperable by January 2021.
“Our goal has been to separate guns that can commit mass murders and guns used for self-defense or hunting,” Levine said. “We didn’t want to affect those guns.”
Levine said letting people hold on to the assault weapons they already own by registering them allows the state to more closely monitor who has them, and through that, help avert tragedy.
“I think these guns pose a danger, and at the same time, people have invested money in them,” he said.
The National Rifle Association and other organizations lobbying on the issue have argued that a registry could help the government seize firearms if lawmakers chose to eliminate the grandfather clause.
The VCDL and NRA oppose the measure.
Levine called it a “compromise with law-abiding gun owners.”
Security at the Capitol
Entry into Capitol Square on Monday will be limited to a single entrance on the northwest side of the area.
There, a “joint command” of law enforcement agencies, including Capitol Police, the Richmond Police Department and the Virginia State Police, will be using more than a dozen metal detectors to screen attendees.
They will be enforcing Northam’s ban on Capitol grounds and looking for any barred weapons, like bats and chains. People found with banned items will be turned away.
VCDL, Gun Owners of America and three Virginia citizens who planned to bring guns to the rally filed a lawsuit requesting that the ban be lifted in time for the event.
On Thursday, a Richmond Circuit Court judge rejected the challenge. “The plaintiffs in this case will not suffer irreparable harm sufficient to justify the injunction,” Judge Joi J. Taylor wrote in her three-page ruling.
The gun-rights activists appealed to the Virginia Supreme Court, which rejected their challenge late Friday. Lawyers for the gun-rights groups did not indicate whether they would lodge an appeal in federal court.
The ruling means that those inside Capitol Square will assemble without their firearms. During the 11 a.m. rally on the Capitol steps, gun-rights supporters will hear from speakers, including Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, who attracted attention last year for carrying a firearm inside the Capitol for protection.
In a Facebook post Friday, Chase said she and other gun-rights advocates are “being set up” by Northam and other Democrats, arguing that disruptions Monday could lead to law-abiding citizens being unfairly arrested.
A Northam spokeswoman declined to comment on Chase’s post.
Also speaking at Monday’s rally are Dels. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, and John McGuire, R-Goochland, who are among the Republican candidates challenging Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-7th, for her seat.
The lineup also includes Dick Heller, the plaintiff in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case of D.C. v. Heller. In that case, the U.S. Supreme Court found a D.C. handgun ban unconstitutional and held that the Second Amendment protects an individual’s right to possess a firearm.
The VCDL rally is scheduled to conclude by noon, and most buses are scheduled to depart by 2 p.m.
People will be allowed to exit through three gates on the south side of Capitol Square, near Ninth and Bank streets. Both streets will be closed to vehicular traffic near Capitol Square.
Meanwhile, activity inside the Capitol and the Pocahontas Building, where much of the legislative work takes place, will go on as planned. Jake Rubenstein, a spokesman for Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, said he anticipated a “regular day” of work for lawmakers.
It won’t be so for other groups with planned events. The holiday honoring King is the legislature’s traditional Lobby Day because many Virginians are off work and can come to Richmond to petition legislators on a variety of causes.
An event to advocate for gun-control measures and to honor victims of gun violence was canceled Friday afternoon by its organizers, the Virginia Center for Public Safety, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, and the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence.
“[We] have hosted this event for the last 28 years. Advocates have faced armed individuals trying to intimidate us each year. But this year is different,” said Lori Haas, state director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.
“We have received information that heavily armed white supremacists will be seeking to incite violence, and our organization has decided that the safety of our volunteers, advocates and staff, many of whom are survivors of gun violence, must be our top priority.”
Also canceled was an event hosted by Brown Virginia to honor King’s legacy. The event was scheduled to include Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and other lawmakers at the Patrick Henry administrative building in Capitol Square.
Brown Virginia Director Jewel Gatling said organizers decided to cancel out of concern for the safety of children and teenagers expected to attend. She added that law enforcement also encouraged citizens to avoid the area.
“I think it’s upsetting and disrespectful to the legacy of MLK Jr. that bigots and racists are being allowed to have full access at the Capitol,” Gatling said. “While they have a constitutional right to protest, we, the ones who haven’t threatened anyone, were the ones that were asked to reschedule.”
Whether or how many white supremacist groups, or other groups with violent intent, will attend is unclear. House and Senate leaders briefed on the matter Friday afternoon declined to comment.
Evans, a gun activist whose bus will depart from a Southampton Hardee’s at 6 a.m., said he and his group will come in peace. As for others, he said, “I hope that police officers will have a grip on that kind of thing.”
Like Holt, he emphasized he is coming to lobby, not to engage in violence.
“We’re coming in peace, fighting for our Second Amendment rights. Not to fight but to rally, in hopes that the governor will have a different heart and stop this stuff.”
Asked if he planned to bring his gun, he said, “I’m not carrying a gun, but I can’t answer for other people.
“It’s their God-given right to do what they want.”