By Brad Brooks
RICHMOND, Va. (Reuters) – More than 22,000 armed gun-rights activists peacefully filled the streets around Virginia’s capitol building on Monday to protest gun-control legislation making its way through the newly Democratic-controlled state legislature.
Despite fears that neo-Nazis or other extremists would piggyback on the Richmond rally to stoke unrest like the violence at a 2017 demonstration by white nationalists in Charlottesville that killed a counter-protester, the Capitol Police reported just one arrest, a 21-year-old woman taken into custody for wearing a bandana over her face after twice being warned that masks were not allowed.
Chants of “USA! USA! USA!” and others praising President Donald Trump reverberated as men and women carrying handguns and rifles squeezed into the streets around the Virginia state capitol, standing shoulder-to-shoulder for three blocks in all directions.
There was a heavy security presence after Governor Ralph Northam banned carrying weapons onto the capitol grounds and the FBI earlier last week arrested three alleged neo-Nazis who it said intended to use the event to spark a race war.
But by 1 p.m. ET, nearly all rally-goers had left the area, with volunteers picking up trash left behind. The Capitol Police estimated the crowd at 22,000 people.
Activists at the rally organized by the Virginia Citizens Defense League argued that Virginia was trying to infringe on their right to bear arms, which is protected by the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
“What’s going on here, if not stopped, will spread to other states,” said Teri Horne, who had traveled to Virginia from her home in Texas with her Smith & Wesson rifle and .40-caliber handgun. “They will come for our guns in other states if we don’t stop them in Virginia.”
Northam, a Democrat, has vowed to push through new gun control laws and is backing a package of eight bills, including universal background checks, a “red flag” law, a ban on assault-style rifles and a limit of one handgun-a-month purchase. It does not call for confiscating guns currently legally owned.
It is not his first attempt. He called a special legislative session last year after the massacre of 12 people in Virginia Beach, but the Republicans who then controlled the legislature ended that meeting without a vote.
State Democratic leaders and activists believe that move contributed to the November victories that gave them control of both chambers.
A group of 13 student activists from March For Our Lives, a gun-control group, slept inside the capitol building on Sunday night ahead of impromptu meetings with lawmakers to encourage them to pass the legislation.
“A lot of the protesters outside have a really extreme reading of the Second Amendment,” Eve Levenson, a 20-year-old political science student at George Washington University, said in a telephone interview. “What we’re fighting for is common-sense laws that are proven to work and are already effective in other states.”
T-SHIRTS AND TRUMP
Many in the crowds dressed in camouflage or tactical gear. Some browsed vendors’ pro-gun T-shirts and other merchandise, much of it carrying slogans supporting Trump, who has sharply criticized the gun-control proposals.
The president weighed in again on the Virginia situation on Monday.
“The Democrat Party in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia are working hard to take away your 2nd Amendment rights,” Trump wrote on Twitter. “This is just the beginning. Don’t let it happen, VOTE REPUBLICAN in 2020!”
People across the United States were focused on the Virginia gun issue, said Philip Van Cleave, leader of the Virginia Citizens Defense League.
“They don’t want us to fail in stopping this,” Van Cleave said on Sunday. “We’ve gotten huge donations from other states.”
“The Virginia election last November was an indictment of guns, and it was not an outlier,” said Christian Heyne, who leads legislative efforts at the gun violence prevention group Brady. “Virginia candidates flipped things on their head when they won because of the gun issue, not despite it.”
The state’s gun owners responded with a movement to create “sanctuary cities” for gun rights, with local government bodies in nearly all 95 counties passing declarations not to enforce new gun laws.
Grayson County Sheriff Richard Vaughan, who is from a sanctuary county, held aloft a banner supporting the Second Amendment on a street in front of the capitol.
“Some of these bills being proposed are just unconstitutional and we will not enforce them,” Vaughan said. “As a sheriff I am the last line of defense between law-abiding gun owners and the politicians who want to take away their rights.”
The sanctuary idea has quickly spread across the United States, with over 200 local governments in 16 states passing such measures.
(Reporting by Brad Brooks; Additional reporting by Jonathan Drake and Julia Harte; Writing by Brad Brooks and Jonathan Allen; Editing by Scott Malone and Daniel Wallis)