Gun safety groups call off MLK Day event, citing potential for violence

State Police stand outside the Capitol on the opening day of the General Assembly's 2020 session. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Gun safety groups have called off their annual gathering on Capitol Square Monday, citing safety threats that have been “promoted and encouraged by gun extremists.”

The Virginia Center for Public Safety, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence had secured a permit for an event on the Capitol steps Monday from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m., a few hours after the scheduled time for a much larger, pro-gun rally being planned by the Virginia Citizens Defense League.

The gun safety coalition, which had hosted the event for 28 years, had expected up to 500 people to attend this year, according to a permit issued by the state.

“Advocates have faced armed individuals trying to intimidate us each year,” Lori Haas, the Virginia director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said in a statement. “But this year is different; we have received information that heavily armed white supremacists will be seeking to incite violence, and our organization has decided that the safety of our volunteers, advocates, and staff, many of whom are survivors of gun violence, must be our top priority.”

Though VCDL has encouraged people coming to its event to remain peaceful, state officials have raised concerns about the prospect of violence caused by far-right militia groups and white supremacists apparently planning to join the demonstration. On Thursday, the FBI arrested three members of a neo-Nazi group who were allegedly planning to attend the rally “in anticipation of a possible race war,” according to the New York Times.

In communications to its members, the VCDL has suggested Democrats are exaggerating the safety threats while asking rallygoers to “practice appropriate situational awareness.” The group has filed a legal challenge to Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order banning guns on Capitol Square for the event, but a Richmond judge upheld the ban Thursday. An appeal filed with the Supreme Court of Virginia was still pending as of Friday afternoon.

A pro-gun backlash has been building steadily since Democrats triumphed in last year’s General Assembly elections, winning legislative majorities after campaigning on a platform of stronger firearm laws.

Haas said those planning a show of force against gun laws Monday are refusing to accept the election results and are “promoting the message that ‘the people with the guns make the rules.'”

“They have amplified and fanned the flames of insurrectionism and civil war in a way that is irresponsible and dangerous,” Haas said.