Thousands of armed activists gather at Virginia’s pro-gun rally

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.

‘FUNDAMENTAL SHIFT’

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)

FBI arrests three alleged neo-Nazis ahead of Virginia gun rally

(Reuters) – The FBI has arrested three suspected members of a neo-Nazi group who had weapons and hopes of starting a U.S. race war, just days before a planned gun-rights rally in Virginia that was expected to draw thousands of people, officials said on Thursday.

The arrests came the day after Virginia Governor Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency banning any weapons around the grounds of the state capitol in Richmond, saying investigators had seen groups making threats of violence.

The men were arrested in Maryland and were expected to make an appearance in federal court later Thursday, a source familiar with the investigation told Reuters.

Several thousand gun rights supporters are planning a large rally in Richmond, Virginia’s capital, on Monday in response to the newly Democratic-controlled state legislature’s push to stiffen gun laws.

Virginia, where Democrats took control of the legislature by promising stronger gun laws, has become the latest focal point for the contentious American debate around the right to bear arms. Many gun-rights groups contend the U.S. Constitution guarantees their ability to possess any firearm. Those opposed say gun laws would help lessen the number of people killed by guns each year.

According to a criminal complaint filed before the U.S. District Court for Maryland, the men arrested were Brian Mark Lemley Jr.; Patrik Jordan Mathews, a former Canadian military reservist; and William Garfield Bilbrough.

They are accused of interstate commerce of weapons and, in the case of Lemley and Bilbrough, harboring illegal aliens.

The three are allegedly members of the neo-Nazi group The Base. In the court filing, the FBI said it had monitored encrypted chats among the group’s members, in which they discussed creating a white ethno-state and carrying out acts of violence against minorities.

(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas, Mark Hosenball in Washington and Gabriella Borter in New York; Editing by Scott Malone)

Warning of ‘serious threats’ Virginia governor bans weapons at gun-rights rally

(Reuters) – Virginia Governor Ralph Northam on Wednesday said he would ban all firearms and other weapons around the state capitol building this weekend, ahead of a major gun-rights demonstration expected to draw thousands of people.

Northam, who is leading the push for stronger gun laws in his state, said he wants to avoid a repeat of violence that erupted at a 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, when a march by white nationalists erupted and led to the death of a counterprotester.

Gun-rights advocates, including militia groups and ultraconservative activists, are planning a “Lobby Day” rally on Monday, seeking to block gun control legislation backed by Northam, a Democrat, whose party recently won majorities in both chambers of the state legislature.

“We’re seeing threats of violence. We’re seeing threats of armed confrontation and assault on our capitol,” Northam said. “These are considered credible, serious threats from our law enforcement agencies.”

Several measures – including universal background checks and “red flag” laws – that would toughen gun laws in the state are quickly making their way through the Senate and House, and could be passed before the end of the month.

The Virginia Citizens Defense League, which is organizing the rally, hopes that a large turnout by gun-rights proponents, most of whom will be openly carrying weapons as allowed by state law, will persuade lawmakers not to back the measures, according to materials posted online by the group.

“A substantial crowd will be here in Richmond,” State Police Superintendent Colonel Gary Settle told reporters on Wednesday. “We’re talking several thousands of people.”

Everyone attending Monday’s rally will be required to enter through a security checkpoint, authorities said.

Last week, Virginia lawmakers approved a new gun policy prohibiting firearms inside the Capitol and a nearby office building. But they did not extend the ban to Capitol Square, the public space outside that includes monuments to prominent Virginians and the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial.

(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas, additional reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Scott Malone, Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Neo-Nazi gets second life sentence in murder of protester in Virginia

FILE PHOTO: James Alex Fields Jr., 20, is seen in a mugshot released by Charlottesville, Virginia police department, Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 12, 2017. Charlottesville Police Department/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

By Gary Robertson

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (Reuters) – A Virginia state judge on Monday sentenced a self-professed neo-Nazi to a second life prison term for killing a demonstrator when he drove his car into a crowd protesting against white supremacists in Charlottesville two years ago.

Charlottesville Circuit Court Judge Richard Moore sentenced James Fields, 22, to life plus 419 years, as recommended by the jury that found him guilty last December of murder plus eight counts of malicious wounding and a hit-and-run offense.

“Mr. Fields, you deserve the sentence the jury gave. What you did was an act of terror,” Moore said.

Fields, a resident of Maumee, Ohio, who appeared in court on Monday in striped prison garb, had already received a separate life sentence without the possibility of parole after pleading guilty in March to federal hate-crime charges stemming from the violence in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017.

Heather Heyer, 32, one of the counter-demonstrators, was killed in the attack, which also injured many others.

Heyer’s mother, Susan Bro, said in a statement read in court on Monday that she hoped Fields finds reclamation in prison. “But I also hope he never sees the light of day outside of prison,” she said.

Statements by several victims were also read in court.

The deadly car-ramming capped a day of tension and physical clashes between hundreds of white nationalists and neo-Nazis who had gathered in Charlottesville for a “Unite the Right” rally, and groups of demonstrators opposed to them.

By the time of the car attack, police had already declared an unlawful assembly and cleared a city park of the white nationalists, who were there to protest removal of statues commemorating two Confederate generals of the U.S. Civil War.

The night before, “Unite the Right” protesters had staged a torch-lit march through the nearby University of Virginia campus chanting racist and anti-Semitic slogans.

The events proved a turning point in the rise of the “alt-right,” a loose alignment of fringe groups centered on white nationalism and emboldened by President Donald Trump’s 2016 election. Trump was strongly criticized by fellow Republicans and by Democrats for saying after Charlottesville that “both sides” were to blame for the violence.

During the state court trial, Fields’ lawyers never disputed that Fields was behind the wheel of the Dodge Charger that sent bodies flying when the vehicle slammed into Heyer and about 30 other people. Instead, the defense suggested that Fields felt intimidated by the hostile crowds.

Prosecutors countered that Fields was motivated by hatred and had come to the rally to harm others. The defendant, who has identified himself as a neo-Nazi, was photographed hours before the car attack carrying a shield with an emblem of a far-right hate group.

Less than a month before the events in Charlottesville, he had posted an image on Instagram showing a car plowing through a crowd of people captioned: “You have the right to protest but I’m late for work.”

(Reporting by Gary Robertson in Charlottesville; Writing by Steve Gorman; Editing by Leslie Adler)

U.S. measles outbreak spreads to Idaho and Virginia, hits 1,022 cases

FILE PHOTO: A vial of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine at the International Community Health Services clinic in Seattle, Washington, U.S., March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson/File Photo

The United States’ worst measles outbreak in a quarter-century spread to Idaho and Virginia last week as public health authorities on Monday reported 41 new cases of the highly contagious and sometimes deadly disease.

The U.S. has recorded 1,022 cases of the diseases this year as of June 6, in an outbreak blamed on misinformation about vaccines, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said.

The 2019 outbreak, which has reached 28 states, is the worst since 1992, when 2,126 cases were recorded.

Federal health officials attribute this year’s outbreak to U.S. parents who refuse to vaccinate their children. These parents believe, contrary to scientific evidence, that ingredients in the vaccine can cause autism.

“We cannot say this enough: Vaccines are a safe and highly effective public health tool that can prevent this disease and end the current outbreak,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said in a statement last week.

Measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000, meaning there was no continuous transmission of the disease for a year. Still, cases of the virus occur and spread via travelers coming from countries where measles is common.

CDC officials have warned that the country risks losing its measles elimination status if the ongoing outbreak, which began in October 2018 in New York, continues until October 2019.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York and Aakash Jagadeesh Babu in Bengaluru; Editing by Scott Malone and Susan Thomas)

Some 156 people in 10 states infected with E. coli from ground beef: CDC

FILE PHOTO: A general view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia September 30, 2014. REUTERS/Tami Chappell/File Photo

By Brendan O’Brien

(Reuters) – A total of 156 people in 10 states have been infected with E. coli after eating tainted ground beef at home and in restaurants since the beginning of March, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said on Tuesday.

No deaths have been reported but 20 people have been hospitalized after they were infected with the strain E. coli O103 since March 1, the CDC said on its website.

The agency said an investigation is ongoing to determine the source of the contaminated ground beef that was supplied to grocery stores and restaurants.

“At this time, no common supplier, distributor, or brand of ground beef has been identified,” the CDC said.

The investigation began on March 28, when officials in Kentucky and Georgia notified the CDC of the outbreak. Since then, some 65 cases have been reported in Kentucky, 41 in Tennessee and another 33 in Georgia.

E. coli cases have also been reported in Florida, Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, Mississippi, Ohio and Virginia.

The CDC said that illnesses after March 26 may not have been reported yet because the lead time is two to three weeks.

People infected with the bacteria get sick two to eight days after swallowing the germ, and may sometimes develop a type of kidney failure.

Many of the infected people had bought large trays or chubs of ground beef from grocery stores and used the meat to make dishes like spaghetti sauce and Sloppy Joes, the agency said.

The regulator said it is not recommending that consumers avoid eating ground beef at this time, but said that consumers and restaurants should handle ground beef safely and cook it thoroughly to avoid foodborne illnesses.

(Reporting by Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee, Wis.; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Matthew Lewis)

CDC investigates E.coli outbreak in several states

FILE PHOTO: A general view of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) headquarters in Atlanta, Georgia September 30, 2014. REUTERS/Tami Chappell/File Photo

(Reuters) – The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and several other U.S. agencies are investigating an E.coli outbreak in five states, the CDC said on Friday.

The CDC, the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and several states are investigating the outbreak of toxin-producing E.coli O103 infections.

Escherichia coli, or E.coli bacteria, normally lives in the intestines of healthy people and animals. Although many strains of the bacteria are harmless, certain strains can cause severe abdominal cramps, bloody diarrhea and vomiting.

Georgia, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee and Virginia are the five states that have reported E.coli infections relating to particular strain of the bacteria.

As many as 72 people from these states have reported infections and eight have been hospitalized as of April 4, 2019, the agency said. No deaths were reported.

The investigation is still going on and the reason for the outbreak is yet to be identified, the agency said.

(Reporting by Aakash Jagadeesh Babu in Bengaluru; Editing by James Emmanuel)

Teen arrested over racist threat that closed Charlottesville schools

FILE PHOTO: Messages are left on a chalkboard wall ahead of the one-year anniversary of 2017 Charlottesville "Unite the Right" protests, in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 10, 2018. REUTERS/Jim Urquhart/File Photo

(Reuters) – Police arrested a 17-year-old boy on Friday over a racist threat of violence posted online that prompted authorities to close all the schools in Charlottesville, Virginia, for two days.

The boy, who has not been publicly identified, was charged with threatening to cause bodily harm on school property, a felony, and harassment by computer, a misdemeanor, police said in a statement.

City leaders have worked to ease racial tensions in the city since a white nationalist rally in August 2017 descended into violence, with a white nationalist killing a counter-protester and injuring others after he drove into a crowd.

The threat against Charlottesville High School was reported to the police on Wednesday afternoon, according to the police department.

School officials then quickly decided to close all schools in the city. According to U.S Census Bureau data, African Americans make up around 19 percent of Charlottesville’s population of nearly 50,000 people.

“We would like to acknowledge and condemn the fact that this threat was racially charged,” Charlottesville City Schools said in a letter sent to parents and posted on its website on Thursday evening notifying them of Friday’s closures. “The entire staff and School Board stand in solidarity with our students of color.”

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that a person claiming to be a student at Charlottesville High School, one of the region’s largest schools, warned white students to stay at home so they could shoot dead non-white students in an act of “ethnic cleansing.”

The boy arrested on Friday is not a student at any of the city’s schools, the Times-Dispatch reported, citing the schools superintendent.

There was widespread condemnation for the white nationalists involved in the violence in Charlottesville in 2017.

But U.S. President Donald Trump drew strong criticism in the days after the Charlottesville rally for equating white supremacists with counter-protesters and saying he thought there were “fine people” on both sides.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; editing by Nick Carey and Susan Thomas)

Racist violence threat keeps Charlottesville schools closed

FILE PHOTO: Protesters gather at the University of Virginia, ahead of the one year anniversary of the 2017 Charlottesville "Unite the Right" protests, in Charlottesville, Virginia, U.S., August 11, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

(Reuters) – Schools in Charlottesville, Virginia, remained closed for a second consecutive day on Friday as police investigated a threat of racist violence against non-white students that had been posted online, officials said.

City leaders have worked to ease racial tensions in the city since a white nationalist rally in August 2017 descended into violence, with a white nationalist killing a counter-protester and injuring others after he drove into a crowd.

A threat against Charlottesville High School was reported to the police on Wednesday afternoon, according to the police department.

School officials then quickly decided to close all schools in the city. According to U.S Census Bureau data, African Americans make up around 19 percent of Charlottesville’s population of nearly 50,000 people.

“We would like to acknowledge and condemn the fact that this threat was racially charged,” Charlottesville City Schools said in a letter sent to parents and posted on its website on Thursday evening notifying them of Friday’s closures. “The entire staff and School Board stand in solidarity with our students of color.”

Police have not identified the specific threat they are investigating.

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reported that a person claiming to be a student at Charlottesville High School, one of the region’s largest schools, warned white students to stay at home so they could shoot dead non-white students in an act of “ethnic cleansing.”

There was widespread condemnation for the white nationalists involved in the violence in Charlottesville in 2017.

But U.S. President Donald Trump drew strong criticism in the days after the Charlottesville rally for equating white supremacists with counter-protesters and saying “both sides” were to blame.

(Reporting by Jonathan Allen; Editing by Nick Carey)

Heavy snowstorm kills three, snarls travel in U.S. Southeast

An aerial view shows snow over the Appalachian State University in Boone, North Carolina, U.S. in this still image taken from a social media video. Nelson Aerial Productions/via REUTERS

By Rich McKay

ATLANTA (Reuters) – An intense snowstorm headed out to sea on Monday after dumping up to 2 feet (60 cm) of snow on parts of the Southeastern United States, leaving three people dead in North Carolina and some 138,000 customers in the region still without power.

School districts across North and South Carolina and Virginia canceled classes for the day and emergency officials warned that heavy snow and icy roads were slowing their responses to problems such as hundreds of stranded motorists.

The storm dropped its heaviest snow in the appropriately named Whitetop, Virginia, tucked in the Appalachian Mountains along the western end of the Virginia-North Carolina border, the U.S. National Weather Service said. Whitetop received 2 feet of snow, while Greensboro, North Carolina, had 16 inches (41 cm) and Durham, North Carolina, got 14 inches (36 cm).

Slippery conditions on roadways in central and western North Carolina and southwest Virginia were expected on Monday night as temperatures were forecast to drop below freezing, Daniel Petersen, NWS meteorologist, said.

But temperatures were expected to rise later in the week, reaching into the 50s F in North Carolina east of the mountains on Friday, when there is a chance of rain.

There were three storm-related deaths, North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper’s office said in a statement. A person died from a heart-related condition while en route to a shelter, and a terminally ill woman died when her oxygen device stopped working.

A motorist also died and a passenger was injured in Matthews in southwestern North Carolina on Sunday when a tree fell on their vehicle as it was traveling, Matthews police officials said in a statement.

The number of customers without power in the Carolinas and Virginia had decreased to about 138,000 by Monday evening from more than 220,000, Poweroutage.us reported.

The storm prompted the cancellation of one in four flights into and out of Charlotte/Douglas International Airport, the sixth-busiest in the country, and other airports across the region, flight-tracking website FlightAware said.

The mayor of Greensboro, North Carolina, Nancy Vaughan, who declared a state of emergency for the city on Sunday, said online that its police and fire departments had responded to over 100 accidents and 450 stranded motorists.

“Stay off the roads if you can,” Vaughan tweeted on Monday.

More than 100 counties across Georgia, North Carolina and Virginia delayed or canceled classes on Monday because of severe weather.

(Reporting by Rich McKay; Additional reporting by Suzannah Gonzales in Chicago, Gina Cherelus and Maria Caspani in New York and Brendan O’Brien in Milwaukee; Editing by Richard Chang and Peter Cooney)