Capitol gun rally: 22,000 attendees, one arrest, no violence
A pro-gun demonstrator at a rally on the Capitol grounds in January, held in opposition to proposed new gun control laws, holds a makeshift Gadsen flag. (Ryan M. Kelly/ For the Virginia Mercury)
Our ongoing coverage of the gun rally at the Virginia Capitol today. View a gallery of photos from throughout the day here.
Authorities said an estimated 22,000 people attended Monday’s gun rally, which ended without incident despite fears that far-right extremists were planning to hijack the event.
They said approximately 6,000 people entered the weapon-free zone within Capitol Square and another 16,000 people stood on the streets outside the gate.
Police reported just one arrest in the vicinity of the rally.
Police said they arrested 21-year-old Mikaela E. Beschler of Richmond, for allegedly violating the state’s anti-mask law in the 800 block of East Broad Street. Police said Beschler was arrested after she continued to wear a bandanna after an officer warned her twice to uncover her face.
Numerous armed rally attendees were also seen covering their faces without being confronted by police.
By about 2:15 p.m., streets around the Capitol were mostly clear and Broad Street had been reopened to vehicle traffic. Some rally attendees walked through the crowd with trash bags as the event wrapped up.
One man was seen peeling orange ‘Guns Save Lives” stickers off the asphalt. A mock guillotine placed on Ninth Street during the demonstration had been disassembled and moved to the side of the road. An inscription on the guillotine read: “The Penalty for Treason is Death.”
(This post was updated after police released details on an arrest)
— Graham Moomaw
Lessons learned from Charlottesville
The closest thing to a flashpoint Monday came when about eight counter protesters began chanting for a socialist revolution and Trump’s removal from office.
Police moved in swiftly to physically separate the small group from the hundreds of rally attendees who quickly surrounded them and started chanting back “USA” and “Trump 2020.”
It was a stark departure from the approach police took at the far more volatile white supremacist rally in Charlottesville on Aug. 12, 2017, when police remained behind barricades and did not intervene as conflict broke out between opposing groups.
Taking a more active role in keeping groups separate and breaking up skirmishes is one of the recommendations that came out of the various after-action reports that followed the fatal rally.
It’s one of several lessons authorities appeared to take Monday from the disastrous police response to the Charlottesville rally.
Most notably, officials moved early to implement what police call “stadium style security” for the rally — a key recommendation from an independent review commissioned by Charlottesville city leaders. Under the approach, police only allowed people to enter Capitol Square through a single entrance and all attendees were searched for weapons, which were banned under an emergency declaration.
The approach meant that many rally attendees stayed on the streets outside the Capitol where they could legally carry guns. Police took precautions there as well, closing roads to traffic and setting up rented dump trucks to prevent any vehicles from driving into the crowd—another recommendation from the Charlottesville, which relied on a temporary traffic barrier during the Aug. 12 rally.
— Ned Oliver
‘Here we are, like defenseless caged animals:’ At rally, gun advocates vow to oppose new laws
The rally’s official program included about an hour of speeches on Capitol Square from elected state officials and other gun-rights supporters before demonstrators filed out peacefully into the streets. Many thanked police on the way out.
Del. Nick Freitas, R-Culpeper, a congressional candidate seeking the GOP nomination to challenge U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, D-Henrico, thanked the crowd for showing up despite the spread of information meant to “scare” and “intimidate” rallygoers.
“The next time they tell you that the government is responsible for your security, just remind them that it was the government that was protecting Jeffrey Epstein. Who, by the way, didn’t kill himself,” Freitas said, closing his speech with a reference to the high profile financier who was facing charges of sexually abusing dozens of women and girls when he died in his cell last year under mysterious circumstances. The death was ruled a suicide.
Freitas was endorsed during the event by Gun Owners of America, a group that works with Virginia Citizens Defense League. One of his Republican opponents, Del. John McGuire, R-Goochland, spoke shortly thereafter, telling the crowd he had introduced a bill that would allow Virginians to sue the government if they get shot in a gun-free zone.
“I don’t understand what part of shall not be infringed they don’t understand,” McGuire said.
Stephen Willeford, a Texas man who used an AR-15 to disrupt the 2017 mass shooting at a church in Sutherland Springs, told the crowd that Americans have three boxes they can use to protect their rights: the soap box, the ballot box and the cartridge box.
“Let’s hope that we are generations away from using the cartridge box,” Willeford said. “Because it’s a last-ditch moment.”
Two Virginia law enforcement officers — Culpeper County Sheriff Scott Jenkins and York County Sheriff Danny Diggs — were also included in the speaker lineup.
Jenkins reiterated his vow to deputize thousands of Culpeper residents if necessary to protect them from new gun laws and urged attendees to pressure their local officials to go beyond passing symbolic pro-gun resolutions.
“It’s time for all those counties to now go to their sheriffs, their commonwealth’s attorneys and ask them to stand firm and state where do we stand on this line,” Jenkins said.
Noting the revolutionary history of York County, Diggs said Virginia is “now faced with tyranny again.”
“The governor and the Democrats have ignored the Constitution and trampled on our rights,” Diggs said. “He has even disarmed law enforcement officers here today, telling us that it’s to keep us safe. Yet here we are, like defenseless caged animals.”
All of the gun bills Democrats are pushing exist in other states. Some, like the red flag law Florida enacted in the wake of the Parkland massacre, have stood up to constitutional challenges. In the landmark Heller case, the U.S. Supreme Court said firearm regulation and the Second Amendment are not incompatible.
Meanwhile, outside the rally, a protester carrying an assault-style rifle and wearing military-style clothing said he was there to “stand up for his rights, because if you don’t use them you lose them.” The man wouldn’t give his name. He grew up around guns, he said, and doesn’t see this protest as part of a movement, since gun rights are already enshrined in the Constitution. He drove about 10 hours from Tennessee. “They’re not as treasonous in Tennessee,” said a man next to him, who wouldn’t give his name either.
Lynn Kasic owns a gun-range in West Virginia but lives in Gainsville, Va. She is a firm support of the 2nd Amendment, she says, and the current government has gone far beyond any reasonable measures. She says the government should start with enforcing any laws they currently have and addressing issues of mental illness, which is the root cause of most mass shootings. She is not worried about violence at the rally, and says that gun owners are live and let-live people.
— Graham Moomaw and Jahd Khalil
As gun rally begins, it’s wall-to-wall people on streets around Capitol
By mid-morning, thousands of people packed shoulder-to-shoulder into streets around the Capitol, many carrying assault-style rifles or wearing handguns on their hips. So far there have been no reports of violence or other significant incidents.
People waved signs, chanted, passed around petitions purporting to call for Gov. Ralph Northam to be recalled from office and bought T-shirts and hats from vendors selling Trump and gun merchandise on street corners.
Marching to flute music from a megaphone, a man who gave his name as “T-bird” said Northam should be tried for treason for violating the Constitution. The group he was with acted like a paramilitary organization, responding to commands to move certain ways, but the man wouldn’t answer directly when asked if they knew each other, saying the group was his “American family.”
The postal service has locked collection boxes around the protests pic.twitter.com/NMqnijo1FR
— Jahd Khalil (@jahdkhalil) January 20, 2020
Inside Capitol Square, where guns are banned and security is tight, Miranda Smith, a 25-year-old programmer from Chesapeake described herself as Democratic socially and Republican economically.
“I know a lot of Democrats don’t consider guns to be a civil right. But I do,” she said.
Every person entering the square had to go through metal detectors and have bags searched at the lone entrance off Ninth Street. Though some attendees griped about the security restrictions, the lines seemed to be moving quickly about an hour before the rally was scheduled to begin.
There were no bathrooms set up inside the secure area, forcing some who arrived early to leave the square in order to find one.
— Ned Oliver, Jahd Khalil and Graham Moomaw
Counter protesters mostly steering clear as rally nears
Today’s rally has so far been devoid of any significant counter protest – one of several significant contrasts to the Aug. 12, 2017, protest in Charlottesville.
Groups that support gun control measures cancelled events they planned for today and asked their supporters to avoid the area — advice they appear to be heeding save for a small group, perhaps three people, that briefly unfurled a banner calling for the removal of President Donald Trump.
Likewise, left wing and Antifa protesters say they’re avoiding the area, despite the presence of fringe hate groups they typically mobilize to oppose, including a small contingent wearing Proud Boys paraphernalia.
One Richmond Antifa protester told the Guardian yesterday that they viewed the event as too volatile:
“The Charlottesville event was, from the beginning, an event by neo-Nazis and for neo-Nazis,” a Twitter account run anonymously by a longtime Richmond anti-fascist activist said on Saturday.
“There were no other players. Everyone going into that event knew exactly who would be participating and there wasn’t the risk of 5,000 unknowing subjects caught in the middle.”
In contrast, Monday is Lobby Day, an annual event organized by a gun rights group, the Virginia Citizens Defense League, that attracts a range of local residents.
“I expect a lot of the participants to be older, working class Virginians that are not far-right and do not fit into the category of any hate group,” the anonymous anti-fascist activist who runs the Richmond Twitter account told the Guardian. “Part of the concern is their safety.”
Some far-left groups also oppose the gun control measures proposed by Virginia Democrats, though those groups have so far not made up a perceptible presence in the growing crowd.
— Ned Oliver
For lawmakers, ‘it is and it isn’t’ business as usual inside the Capitol
Even as thousands gathered on Capitol Square to rally for gun rights, business proceeded mostly as usual inside the building itself.
Every senator on the Committee for Local Government showed up for the scheduled 9 a.m. meeting, along with a handful of other lawmakers presenting bills for consideration. The only reference to the activity outside was a brief reference by committee chair Sen. Lynwood Lewis, D-Accomack, to “a lot going on on campus today.”
Most of the people I’ve seen in the Capitol today outside of the committee room are law enforcement pic.twitter.com/z6VYWDrIm8
— Sarah Vogelsong (@SarahVogelsong) January 20, 2020
“We’re going to get to the people’s business,” said Del. Jennifer Carroll Foy, D-Prince William, in the halls before the meeting. While she said she was aware of conversations among legislators about not attending the day’s session, she also said she didn’t know who had decided whether to appear or not.
Del. Lee Carter, D-Manassas, announced last week that he would not be attending today’s session because of death threats.
“People have a First Amendment right to express an opinion,” said Carroll Foy.
Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond said “it is and it isn’t” business as usual. Clusters of police officers stood guard throughout the building.
“It’s a bit surreal. Inside the building it’s just quiet,” she said, adding that she arrived early. “I wasn’t sure what to expect.”
— Sarah Vogelsong
Thousands, many heavily armed, arriving in Richmond
As rally organizers kicked off the morning with a recitation of the text of the Second Amendment and the pledge of allegiance, thousands of attendees began to fill the streets around the Capitol.
Many were heavily armed, carrying rifles and kitted out in camouflage and body armor. Guns are not allowed within Capitol Square itself so organizers asked supporters to carry weapons in the streets around the fence instead.
Here's a line of heavily armed rally attendees outside the VA Capitol pic.twitter.com/ze2ZUYf0SR
— Ned Oliver (@nedoliver) January 20, 2020
Many wore militia insignia, including a group of several dozen that identified itself as the Central Virginia Militia that organized in a loose formation of several rows.
Brandon Lewis, who said he traveled from Buffalo, N.Y., where he owns a gun range, carried a massive Barrett M82.
“This is kind of the first big movement for our times recently, so I thought it was important to be a part of it,” he said.
Why did he feel compelled to bring such a large weapon and wear body armor to what organizers have described as a peaceful event?
“It’s kind of the point of open carry,” he said. “To show you can. It shows the government it’s not above us.”
Rallygoers who came unarmed so they could enter the square started to line up before dawn. Among them was Robert Minuta, a 35-year-old tattoo shop owner from New York who had traveled to Virginia alone.
“Although it’s not my state, I’m here for everyone,” he said.” It’s not a time to sit down and do nothing, that’s for sure.”
Minuta, who said he’s fought against a mandatory vaccination law in his home state, said he heard about the gun-law battle in Virginia from alternative media outlets like the Drudge Report and InfoWars, the site run by conspiracy theorist Alex Jones.
Next to him in line were two truck drivers from Virginia, who said they turned up to oppose the gun laws, but didn’t expect Democrats to change course.
“Northern Virginia, that’s what’s controlling everything,” said 62-year-old Philip Mahoney of Orange County.
The event’s formal program of speakers, which includes several lawmakers, is scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. Near Franklin and Ninth Street, there were chants of “USA.” From Bank Street, there was a chant of “Hey, hey, ho, ho, racist Ralph has got to go.”
—Ned Oliver, Graham Moomaw, Jahd Khalil and Ryan Kelly.
Pro-gun groups call for thousands of armed supporters to fill streets around Virginia Capitol
After the Supreme Court of Virginia rejected their attempt to overturn a firearm ban on Capitol Square amid threats of far-right violence, the organizers of a pro-gun rally today were calling for thousands of their armed supporters to fill the streets around the state government complex, where they can still carry guns.
The Virginia Citizens Defense outlined a two-pronged approach to their event in a Saturday email to supporters, asking 10,000 attendees to “take one for the team” by entering the Capitol grounds unarmed so their rally doesn’t appear lightly attended in photographs and media reports and asking a second, even larger group, to carry guns outside the event.
“If you can commit to being one of our needed 10,000 unarmed members inside the fence, please help us by asking several of your family and friends to be your designated armed escort to the gates and to stand outside the fenced area to watch over us,” the group wrote in an email to supporters on Saturday.
By late Sunday, rally attendees had begun milling around Capitol Square, which is already under tight security by order of Gov. Ralph Northam. Everyone entering has been subject to search since Friday evening and authorities set up thousands of feet of fencing to corral the thousands of expected attendees.
By late afternoon, attendees, gawkers and journalists dotted the square. Men in camouflage and tactical gear recorded videos of themselves discussing the rally plans. Groups walked around inspecting the security measures that have been put into place. A man in a large truck hawked T-shirts decorated with assault rifles on a street corner. Another wandered the perimeter looking for someone who could tell him whether his medical scissors would be allowed in as part of his emergency kit.
The rally is scheduled to begin at 11 a.m. and run through noon, but organizers plan to begin shuttling people into the area at 7 a.m.
The annual event typically draws about 1,000 people to the Capitol and has been relatively uneventful in past years, when there was no real chance of new gun control measures passing and advocates instead hoped to loosen existing laws. Under Republican control of the General Assembly, concealed carry permit holders were allowed to carry guns into the Capitol and neighboring legislative office building — a practice that Democrats have banned since they took control of the House of Delegates and Senate.
This year, the crowds are expected to be significantly larger with Democrats pushing a slate of gun control that includes mandatory background checks, so-called red flag laws and a potential assault weapons ban, which state-wide polls have repeatedly shown have broad public support.
Misinformation has been rampant in the run up to the rally. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who arrived in Richmond on Sunday evening and immediately began broadcasting in front of Capitol Square, has been hyping the prospect of violence. Likewise, militia groups and white supremacists, some of whom were involved in the fatal Aug. 12, 2017, rally in Charlottesville, have also said they intend to participate.
Over the weekend, fringe social media accounts seeded conspiracies that any violence could be blamed on false-flag operations by supporters of gun control, something mainstream advocates — who have cancelled their own event today and urged their supporters to avoid the Capitol — categorically deny.
Instead, authorities arrested six alleged white supremacists last week, one of whom discussed opening fire at the rally in hopes of causing chaos, according to media reports.
The Virginia Citizens Defense League has called on its supporters to remain peaceful and follow rules set by law enforcement.
Likewise, some Republican leaders who earlier last week issued statements questioning Northam’s proposed gun bans and other rally security measures shifted their messaging after they were provided a private briefing on security threats Friday.
“House Republicans reject any attempt by any group to infuse any kind of twisted or extreme worldview into this fundamentally democratic exercise,” said House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, in a statement over the weekend. “So there’s no mistake, this is my message to any group that would subvert this event: you are not welcome here. While we and our Democratic colleagues may have differences, we are all Virginians and we will stand united in opposition to any threats of violence or civil unrest from any quarter.”
Other Republican leaders struck a less calming tone. Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, accused the governor in a Facebook post of laying “the groundwork to make the entire movement look like insurrection” and suggesting a “government plant” might disrupt the rally.
President Donald Trump weighed in on Twitter, writing “Your 2nd Amendment is under very serious attack in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia. That’s what happens when you vote for Democrats, they will take your guns away.”
Democrats have proposed a grandfather clause for any assault weapon limitations and the only legislation the party proposed that would actively remove guns from someone is the proposed red flag law. Trump at one point supported red flag laws, a recommendation of his school safety commission, and strengthening background checks, though he backed off)
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