By Brad Brooks
RICHMOND, Va. (Reuters) – Thousands of armed pro-gun activists from across the United States rallied outside Virginia’s capitol building on Monday to protest new restrictions proposed by state lawmakers, with authorities bracing for violence.
The rally began on a cold morning with a festival-like atmosphere in the streets of Richmond. Many in the crowds were dressed in camouflage or tactical gear and carrying weapons as they exchanged pleasantries with others arriving at the event. Some browsed vendors’ pro-gun T-shirts and other merchandise, much of it carrying slogans supporting President Donald Trump.
Those backing tougher gun restrictions see Democrats taking control of the Virginia legislature for the first time in a generation on campaign promises of tougher access to arms as offering a model for other traditionally gun-friendly states.
Activists at the rally argued that Virginia is stomping on their constitutional right to bear arms and vowed that Monday’s event will help citizens understand how quickly they can lose the ability to carry guns, based on who wins at the ballot box.
“What’s going on here, if not stopped, will spread to other states,” said Teri Horne, who had traveled to Virginia from her home in Texas with her Smith & Wesson rifle and .40-caliber handgun. “They will come for our guns in other states if we don’t stop them in Virginia.”
Activists said they were planning only a peaceful protest. Security was tight with a large police presence. Those wanting to enter Capitol Square to hear the morning’s speakers had to pass through a single entrance for security screening, leaving their guns outside.
Tension rose ahead of the rally after the FBI last week arrested three members of a small neo-Nazi group, who authorities said hoped to ignite a race war through violence at the gathering, reminiscent of a 2017 white supremacist rally in nearby Charlottesville.
People across the United States were focused on the Virginia gun issue, said Philip Van Cleave, leader of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, which is organizing Monday’s rally.
“They don’t want us to fail in stopping this,” Van Cleave said on Sunday. “We’ve gotten huge donations from other states.”
Van Cleave has rejected calls for violence, but he has urged tens of thousands of armed supporters from across the United States to be in Richmond to provide security for his group.
A spokesman for the Capitol police said Van Cleave had worked closely with law enforcement on plans for the rally.
High-profile national militia figures gathered for a meeting on Sunday near Richmond said they wanted Monday’s event to be peaceful, but feared the worst, including the risk of a “lone wolf” unleashing bitter fighting with a single shot.
“The buildup is probably one of the most intense I’ve seen,” said Tammy Lee, a right-wing internet personality from Oklahoma who was involved in the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally.
Christian Yingling, head of the Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia and a leader in Charlottesville, said none of his men would carry long guns and they wanted to avoid skirmishes.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, a Democrat, has vowed to push through new gun control laws and is backing a package of eight bills, including universal background checks, a “red flag” law, a ban on assault rifles and a limit of one handgun-a-month purchase.
“The Virginia election last November was an indictment of guns, and it was not an outlier,” said Christian Heyne, who leads legislative efforts at the gun violence prevention group Brady. “Virginia candidates flipped things on their head when they won because of the gun issue, not despite it. That is a fundamental shift.”
The state’s gun owners responded with a movement to create “sanctuary cities” for gun rights, with local government bodies passing declarations not to enforce new gun laws.
Since the November election, nearly all of Virginia’s 95 counties have some form of “sanctuary”, a term first used by localities opposed to harsh treatment of illegal immigrants.
The idea has quickly spread across the United States, with over 200 local governments in 16 states passing such measures.
President Donald Trump fanned the flames on Friday when he said the U.S. Constitution was being attacked in Virginia, where he was soundly defeated in 2016 by Hilary Clinton.
The NRA, which is not involved in organizing Monday’s rally, also blasted Virginia’s Democrats, who received campaign contributions last year of more than $2.5 million from Everytown for Gun Safety, started by former New York mayor and Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg.
“Anti-gun billionaires who invested millions in the 2019 Virginia elections expect a return on that investment,” said NRA official D. J. Spiker. “The NRA is fully prepared to work to defeat Governor Northam’s gun grab – but also work to find compromise.”
(Reporting by Brad Brooks; Additional reporting by Jonathan Drake in Richmond; Writing by Brad Brooks and Jonathan Allen; Editing by Lisa Shumaker, Clarence Fernandez and Daniel Wallis)