Governor bans weapons during gun rally, citing threats of ‘violent extremism’

Opponents of new gun laws dotted Capitol Square on Monday as Senate Democrats took up legislation that would implement universal background checks, red flag laws, and limit handgun sales to one a month. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

As expected, Gov. Ralph Northam has issued a temporary emergency declaration that will ban all weapons, including firearms, from the Capitol grounds in Downtown Richmond in advance of a planned demonstration Monday opposing new gun restrictions lawmakers are debating in the General Assembly.

In a statement, Northam’s administration said the emergency order comes after “credible threats of violent extremism” and white nationalist rhetoric.

“Three years ago, Virginia and the nation, watched horrified as civil protest was marred by violence and hate. The events that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia, demonstrated what can happen when peaceful demonstrations are hijacked by those who come into the commonwealth and do not value the importance of peaceful assembly,” Northam’s order says. “We must take all precautions to prevent that from ever happening again.”

The declaration runs from 5 p.m. Friday until 5 p.m. Tuesday. State code says that “whenever, in the opinion of the governor, the safety and welfare of the people of the Commonwealth require the exercise of emergency measures due to a threatened or actual disaster, he may declare a state of emergency to exist.”

Law enforcement agencies expect “tens of thousands” of gun rights advocates at the Capitol on the rally day, which is being organized by the Virginia Citizens Defense League but has drawn attention from militia groups and other far right-wing organizations and individuals. The permit issued for the one-hour rally to the VCDL from the state Department of General Services estimates that more than 30,000 people will attend.

“Available information suggests that a substantial number of these demonstrators are expected to come from outside the commonwealth, may be armed, and have as their purpose not peaceful assembly but violence, rioting and insurrection,” the governor’s order says. “Assuring that Virginia’s Capitol Square and surrounding public areas are sheltered safe places for those who come to participate in the democratic process, as well as those who work on or near Capitol Square, is my greatest priority.”

The governor’s order also activates the state’s Emergency Operations Center and the Virginia Emergency Support Team “to coordinate the provision of assistance to state and local governments and to facilitate emergency services assignments to other agencies.”

In a message to its members Tuesday night, the VCDL said the organization “is going to have our attorneys investigate this situation once we hear Northam’s statement on Wednesday and we will let you know what we find out.”

House Minority Leader Todd Gilbert, R-Shenandoah, said the governor’s move would impede both Second and First Amendment rights.

“While we fully expect this to be peaceful, there are legitimate concerns of a few bad actors hijacking the rally. Law enforcement says those agitators are acting on their own volition and are not part of the busloads of Virginians visiting the Capitol,” he said.

Senate Republicans suggested the governor may not have the legal authority to carry out the order. In a statement, Senate GOP leaders pointed to a section of state law that says a governor cannot use emergency powers to restrict gun rights, “except to the extent necessary to ensure public safety.”

“This action is within the governor’s authority,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said in response. “As he made clear at today’s press conference, he will do everything in his power to keep Virginians safe.”