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Virginia gun rights advocates take stand

Chants of “We will not comply,” and “USA, USA,” sounded through the blanket of security as thousands of armed Second Amendment supporters converged on Richmond to protest proposed gun control measures.

The rally, organized by the gun rights group Virginia Citizens Defense League, raised security concerns in the days leading up to it. Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency and banned firearms from the Capitol grounds from Jan. 17 to Jan. 21.

Over the weekend, Capitol Police erected a fence around the grounds and created one main security checkpoint into the area where speakers would be located. Capitol Police estimated around 22,000 people attended, with 6,000 entering the secured area where weapons were not allowed.

Despite the governor’s ban, many gun rights advocates came armed and opted to stay outside of the State Capitol grounds, flooding streets around the Capitol and legislative offices in the Pocahontas Building.

Capitol Police reported that one arrest was made. A Richmond woman was charged for wearing a mask in public — a felony in Virginia. The armed protesters didn’t attempt to breach the security fence put up around Capitol Square. A red smoke grenade was set off, but no other disturbances were reported. After the event, Northam expressed gratitude that the event wasn’t violent.

“Thousands of people came to Richmond to make their voices heard,” he said in a statement. “Today showed that when people disagree, they can do so peacefully.

Days before the rally, the FBI arrested seven members of a white nationalist group called The Base. At least three were reportedly planning to attend the rally and create a violent disturbance. Northam state that such intel prompted him to declare a state of emergency. Some businesses near the Capitol decided to close during the rally, though many remained open.

Philip Van Cleave, VCDL president, tried to dispel fears of violence by releasing social media statement urging attendees to stay peaceful and to focus on supporting the Second Amendment.

“The issue is not race; it’s not politics or politicians,” said Willis Madden, a member of National African American Gun Association from King and Queen County. “It’s not about who is in the White House or who just got elected, the issue is the Second Amendment.”

Many gun rights advocates expressed concern over SB 16, introduced by Sen. Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax, which would have prohibited the sale and transport of assault firearms and certain types of firearm magazines.

Saslaw pulled the bill last week, but Del. Mark H. Levine, D-Alexandria, introduced a similar bill in the House, HB 961. Levine’s bill would prohibit the sale and transport of assault firearms, certain firearm magazines, silencers, and trigger activators, as well as outlines penalties.

Amy Parker of Westmoreland County said gun control legislation doesn’t make her feel safe.

“Everything they are trying to ban is going to get rid of most guns that people use for self-defense,” said Parker. “It’s my right to not be a victim.”

Other gun bills in the General Assembly include SB 70, which requires a universal background check when people sell firearms; SB 69, which limits handgun purchases to one a month; SB 35, which allows localities to ban firearms in a public space during a permitted event; and SB 240, which would create a process for attorneys and law enforcement to file emergency orders prohibiting a person from purchasing, possessing or transferring a firearm if they pose “a substantial risk of injury to himself or others.” The first three were passed the Senate last week and SB 240 awaits a vote.

Van Cleave spoke against the measures endorsed primarily by Northam and Democratic lawmakers. Van Cleave was joined onstage by several Republican legislators, among them Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, Del. John McGuire, R-Henrico and Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield.

“Every other freedom that we have as Americans is based on that Second Amendment,” said Chase, repeating a phrase that she used earlier while addressing advocates waiting in line to lobby lawmakers.

Chase, who previously wore a pistol on the Senate floor during the 2019 General Assembly session, said in a Capital News Service interview that she was “so encouraged” by the rally turnout. Chase said she will continue to work with gun rights advocates to overturn the proposed legislation: “We’re gonna make it happen.”

Attendees expressed happiness that the massive event was not marred by any major disruptions or violence.

“I’ve been following the bills and listening to all of the news surrounding today, and I wanted to see for myself that those of us in Richmond could come out here and be peaceful,” said Ryan Querry, a psychology student at Virginia Commonwealth University. “Most people say they are surprised that it turned out so peaceful, but this is exactly what I expected.”