RICHMOND — Thousands gathered in Virginia’s capital Monday for a pro-gun rally and to lobby against tighter gun laws. The event was met with tighter than usual security. From sunrise until the afternoon, the pro-gun cohort navigated the guns-free steps of the Capitol while others carried their weapons and signs in the surrounding streets. All were under the watchful eye of local and state law enforcement.
Organized by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a pro-gun group, the rally was part of the annual Lobby Day, where various groups advoacte on Martin Luther King Jr. Day for various causes and lobby their legislators. However, amidst a declaration of a state of emergency by Gov. Ralph Northam due to threats from extremists and the promise of militia attendance, other groups announced that they were canceling their events out of an abundance of caution.
As the result of a collaboration with federal, state and local law enforcement, Capitol Square was fenced off with one entrance and limited exits, along with heavy law enforcement presence and metal detectors. Pro-gun attendees filled into the enclosure minus their weapons while people open carried in the streets surrounding the General Assembly buildings.
By the end of the event, no violence had erupted, and Northam released a statement.
“Thousands of people came to Richmond to make their voices heard. Today showed that when people disagree, they can do so peacefully,” the statement read. “The issues before us evoke strong emotions, and progress is often difficult. I will continue to listen to the voices of Virginians, and I will continue to do everything in my power to keep our Commonwealth safe.”
Some Charlottesville-area residents attended the rally but wished to remain anonymous for safety reasons. One spoke with Charlottesville Tomorrow.
“I think that Charlottesville [in 2017] unfortunately was a huge learning experience, and a lot of events that white supremacists have held since then have, luckily, not been as violent,” they said. “But this, to me, was just a kind of egregious display of white supremacy.”
While they reiterated that they are not opposed to the rally and understand the desire for guns for self defense, they felt that the rally’s connection to white supremacists muddled its point. Unite the Right co-organizer Richard Spencer had expressed interest in attending, and other far-right figures, like conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, attended. While there were no overt displays of white nationalism or extremism, some signs read “we will not comply” and referenced a “boogaloo” (far-right internet slang for a new civil war) and demonstrators set up a prop guillotine.
“An avowed white supremacist was roaming the street,” the Charlottesville resident said, referencing Jones. “You can’t say you’re against white supremacism and then create an event that is an incubator.”
In the leadup to the event, the FBI arrested suspected members of a white nationalist group called The Base that had planned to attend Monday’s rally, and security was tightened with the anticipation of larger than usual crowds due to out-of-state attention.
The overall spike in interest can be attributed to the Democratic flip of the General Assembly and its priority of pushing bills like universal background checks and the return of Virginia’s law limiting handgun purchases to one a month. Some bills already have progressed out of committee and are likely to continue to gain traction or pass through this year’s legislative session despite Republican opposition.
Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, was one of the featured speakers at the rally, and in her remarks, she invoked the freedom of assembly in the Constitution.
“Today, you are exercising that very right, peacefully,” she said. “We are here for another constitutional right, and that’s the right to bear arms.”
She went on to recite text from the Second Amendment, something echoed by many in attendance throughout the day: “A well-regulated militia, being necessary to secure the free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.”
Del. Nick Freitas speaks to a crowd on state Capitol grounds on Jan. 20, 2020.
Credit: Charlotte Rene Woods Charlottesville Tomorrow
Del. Nick Freitas, R- Culpeper, who mingled in the crowd to speak with rally attendees personally, also was a featured speaker. Freitas invoked King during his speech on the western edge of Capitol Square.
“Martin Luther lived in a country under Jim Crow laws with a government that actively worked to oppress people in this country,” Freitas said. “It wasn’t that long ago when bad legislators oppressed free people. The Second Amendment was oftentimes the only thing that stood between them and people that would harm them. That’s why we are here today.”
Acknowledging media attention for the event concerning the threats, he reiterated his support of the Second Amendment.
“There’s been some members of the press trying to say that this is a white nationalist rally,” Freitas said. “ Well, if they actually had the courage to come down here and talk to people, and get to know people and understand the reasoning, what they would find is people here of all races, all creeds, all dedicated to the idea that every single law abiding citizen has a God-given right to be able to defend themselves.”
Motioning towards the Capitol he added, “That right does not emanate from the people in that building. The people in that building have a sworn duty to protect that right.”
Some rally attendees said that they came just to show support for guns.
Richard Barden, who said he works in law enforcement and also enjoys recreational shooting in ranges as a hobby, said Monday’s event was the first time he’s attended a rally.
“As someone in law enforcement, I think it’s a very important right for people to carry weapons,” Barden said. “We are not always there when people are in trouble, and some people feel safer having that option.”
On some current gun legislation within the General Assembly chambers, Barden said he feels it is reasonable but understands why it sparks an outcry for some. He cited legislation like the return of purchasing one handgun a month, universal background checks and a bill that could give localities authority to ban weapons from public spaces as examples.
“None of that legislation scares me. I think in the right environment, that would all be pretty prudent,” he said. “But what a lot of people are scared of is that this sort of a test to see how much people are going to push back. People, like myself included, are scared that if this goes through relatively unopposed that more strict legislation might be behind it.”
The Charlottesville resident noted how Black and brown communities have been targeted for their shared right to bear arms. They said their group doesn’t “believe that gun control legislation inherently protects people,” and that while it can protect some people, it is mostly used against those who are marginalized.
“A lot of people are in prison on weapons-related charges that wouldn’t apply to a white man that have been used disproportionately used against men of color,” they said.