Virginia gun group pressing on with Jan. 18 event, despite violence in D.C.

By: and - January 12, 2021 12:02 am

A banner and pro-gun rally attendees line up near Grace and Ninth streets in Downtown Richmond near the Capitol. (Ryan M. Kelly/ For the Virginia Mercury)

The leader of the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League said the group isn’t changing its plans for a Jan. 18 rally in Richmond after right-wing rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol to protest the presidential election.

A year ago, more than 20,000 gun enthusiasts packed the streets around the Virginia Capitol for VCDL’s annual Lobby Day event, a larger-than-normal crowd inspired largely by pro-gun control Democrats winning control of the General Assembly.

Though there were warnings last year’s event could turn violent, there was none of the mayhem seen last week in D.C., where supporters of President Donald Trump attacked police and broke into the Capitol chambers. One U.S. Capitol Police officer died as a result of injuries from the melee, police said, and a Trump supporter was fatally shot by police as she tried to enter a secure area of the building.

A recent FBI memo warned of possible armed protests in all 50 capitals ahead of President-Elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, according to the Associated Press.

It’s not clear what to expect on Jan. 18 event, but it appears to be the only major event on Virginia law enforcement’s radar.

After being denied a permit to rally on the Virginia Capitol grounds, VCDL has asked supporters to participate in a vehicle caravan in the area. The General Assembly won’t be meeting at the Capitol due to COVID-19 precautions.

In online discussions about the VCDL event, some of the group’s supporters questioned whether it was still wise to proceed in the aftermath of riots at the U.S. Capitol, urging organizers to cancel. They worried the planned format would resemble the “Trump Trains” organized by the president’s most fervent supporters. But other members wrote that cancelling could be perceived as giving in to pro-gun control groups.

Phil Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, speaks to a rally in January 2020 of thousands of gun control opponents on the Capitol grounds. (Ryan M. Kelly/ For the Virginia Mercury)

In an interview, VCDL President Philip Van Cleave seemed firmly in the latter camp.

“What happened in D.C. had nothing whatseover to do with us,” Van Cleave said, adding there have been “unfortunate” acts of political violence “happening around the country.”

He noted Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency ahead of last year’s event and “nothing happened.”

“I can’t guarantee nothing would happen again if somebody’s determined to cause a problem,” Van Cleave said. “But we can’t stop every time there’s a potential threat. They’ll just keep doing it and we won’t be able to ever have an event again of any sort.”

Van Cleave stressed that VCDL cares about one issue, guns, and he wants rallygoers to stick to that message and be peaceful.

“We’ve got police there,” he said. “Their job is to be on the lookout for trouble. And if there’s trouble, their job is to handle it. That’s what we pay them for.”

Hundreds of police officers were on hand for a massive pro-gun rally that drew thousands to the Capitol and surrounding streets last year. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

The Virginia General Assembly’s 2021 session is set to begin Wednesday. Though Democratic majorities passed most of their major gun-control proposals last year, there could be more in the upcoming session.

Last year’s gun rally featured strict security protocols at the State Capitol, including a ban on firearms and police checkpoints attendees had to go through before entering a fenced-in area on the Capitol grounds. In the runup to the event, the FBI arrested three men with alleged ties to white supremacist groups, accusing them of planning violence at the Richmond rally. Last month, one of the men was sentenced to five years in prison.

Police made just one arrest during the rally, charging a young Richmond woman with violating the state’s anti-mask law even as other masked gun supporters went unbothered. That charge was dropped.

Public safety officials said they’re prepared for this year’s event.

“Virginia Capitol Police have been planning with our law enforcement partners and other stakeholders for quite some time as we prepare for the 2021 General Assembly session and its related activities,” said Virginia Capitol Police spokesman Joe Macenka. “Beyond that, we typically do not share operational details or intelligence information for the simple reason we do not want to endanger either the public or our officers.”

Virginia Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran said state officials are in regular communication with the FBI and began preparing for VCDL’s planned car rally weeks ago.

“The events of last Wednesday and now the shutting down of several social media platforms has possibly changed the calculus for purposes of our preparation,” he said. “We’re going to take everything very seriously and prepare accordingly. At this point we’re taking any and all threats seriously.”

On the website for the upcoming rally, VCDL says its events haven’t been violent before.

“And we don’t expect that to change,” the site says. “So pack the family in the car and take a road trip!”

Gov. Ralph Northam has sent 2,000 Virginia National Guard soldiers to Washington since the attack on the Capitol and says they will remain “as long as we are needed.”

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Graham Moomaw
Graham Moomaw

A veteran Virginia politics reporter, Graham grew up in Hillsville and Lynchburg, graduating from James Madison University and earning a master's degree in journalism from the University of Maryland. Before joining the Mercury in 2019, he spent six years at the Richmond Times-Dispatch, most of that time covering the governor's office, the General Assembly and state politics. He also covered city hall and politics at The Daily Progress in Charlottesville. Contact him at [email protected]

Ned Oliver
Ned Oliver

Ned, a Lexington native, has been a fulltime journalist since 2008, beginning at The News-Gazette in Lexington, and including stints at the Berkshire Eagle, in Berkshire County, Mass., and the Times-Dispatch and Style Weekly in Richmond. He is a graduate of Bard College at Simon’s Rock, in Great Barrington, Mass. He was named Virginia's outstanding journalist for 2020 by the Virginia Press Association.