A long-awaited pro-gun rally took place in Richmond, Virginia today, so far without sparking the violence that many feared it could incite. The capital was full of thousands of people, many of whom traveled from out of state to protest the Democratic government's proposed new gun control legislation. Many feared that the protests could turn violent, echoing the Charlottesville protests three years ago, which left one dead and dozens injured. Fringe groups including white supremacists and far-right militias announced that they would be attending the rally; as a result, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency and banned guns in the vicinity of the state capitol after receiving what he called credible tips from law enforcement of groups coming to the city with “malicious plans," according to USA Today.
The protest was conceived in response to several new gun control measures that have been making their way through the Virginia legislature in recent weeks. In November, Democrats took control of both houses of the state legislature for the first time in a generation, giving them the opportunity to pass laws that reflect the state’s increasingly liberal population. The bills, which would create new background check requirements for gun sales and limit purchases to one gun per month, have passed the state Senate and could be passed by the House of Delegates as soon as next week. Martin Luther King Day has traditionally played host to the Virginia political tradition of Lobby Day, when citizens come to the capitol to advocate for various causes.
Thousands surged into the city, chanting slogans like "We will not comply" to register their disapproval of Northam and the laws, which he pushed for in the wake of the mass shooting in Virginia Beach last year.
After criticism of the chaos and violence at Charlottesville, Northam promised to improve the police response to armed groups. State police established a perimeter outside of Capitol Square, and protestors had to file through metal detectors in order to attend the rally within. Outside the perimeter, guns were allowed, and reports described a sea of people armed to the teeth, chanting “U-S-A” and pro-Trump slogans. The official rally inside the perimeter lasted from 11 A.M. until noon; as of this afternoon, protests continue to rage outside the perimeter.
Fear ran rampant in Richmond over the past few days, after the FBI arrested several members of a white supremacist organization called The Base around the country. Seven separate members of the group were arrested last week in Maryland and Georgia. Several were charged with being “allegedly involved in a white supremacist group with plans to overthrow the government,” and they had discussed committing violence at the Richmond rally.
The rally was organized by a gun advocacy group called the Virginia Citizens Defense League. It featured speakers like Dean Heller, the man whose case before the Supreme Court in 2008 led to a landmark decision in favor of gun rights. “Let’s yell it to them, so the media and left legislature can hear it,” Heller told the crowd, according to the New York Times. “The right of the people to keep and bear arms will not be infringed!”
Another speaker, a local Virginia sheriff named Scott Jenkins, said, “I ask that you all return to your homes and ask your elected officials, where is the line they will not cross?”