Skip to main content

People who are part of an armed militia group arrive near the Virginia State Capitol building to advocate for gun rights, in Richmond, Va., on Jan. 20, 2020.

STEPHANIE KEITH/Reuters

Tens of thousands of gun-rights activists from around the country rallied peacefully at the Virginia Capitol on Monday to protest plans by the state’s Democratic leadership to pass gun-control legislation – a move that has become a key flash point in the national debate over gun violence

The size of the crowd and the expected participation of white supremacists and fringe militia groups raised fears that the state could see a repeat of the violence that exploded in 2017 in Charlottesville. But the rally concluded uneventfully around noon, and the mood was largely festive, with rally-goers chanting “USA!” and waving signs denouncing Democratic Governor Ralph Northam.

Many protesters chose not to enter the designated rally zone, where Mr. Northam had imposed a temporary weapons ban, and instead packed surrounding streets, many dressed in tactical gear and camouflage and carrying military-style rifles as they cheered on the speakers.

Story continues below advertisement

“I love this. This is like the Super Bowl for the Second Amendment right here,” said P.J. Hudson, a truck driver from Richmond who carried an AR-15 rifle just outside Capitol Square. He was one of the few African-American rally-goers in a crowd that was overwhelmingly white and male, and was frequently stopped and asked to pose for pictures wearing his “Black Guns Matter” sweatshirt.

An estimated 22,000 people attended, according to authorities, who said one woman was arrested on felony charge of wearing a mask in public.

Tens of thousands of protesters from across the United States, many of them toting assault rifles, American flags and tributes to Donald Trump, packed the city streets outside the state capitol in Richmond, Va., on Monday in the name of gun rights. They were there to express their outrage with new gun control measures being proposed by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam. The Canadian Press

The protesters came out despite the frigid temperature to send a message to legislators, they said.

“The government doesn’t run us, we run the government,” said Kem Regik, a 20-year-old private security officer from northern Virginia who brought a white flag with a picture of a rifle captioned “Come and take it.”

Mr. Northam was a particular focus of the protesters’ wrath. One poster showed his face superimposed on Adolf Hitler’s body.

But Democratic lawmakers – including House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn and Senate Majority Leader Dick Saslaw – said the rally wouldn’t affect their plans to pass gun-control measures, including universal background checks and a one-handgun-purchase-a-month limit. Democrats say tightening Virginia’s gun laws will make communities safer and help prevent mass shootings such as the one last year in Virginia Beach, in which a dozen people were killed in a municipal building.

“I was prepared to see a whole lot more people show up than actually did and I think it’s an indication that a lot of this rhetoric is bluster, quite frankly,” said Delegate Chris Hurst, a gun-control advocate whose TV journalist girlfriend was killed in an on-air shooting in 2015.

Story continues below advertisement

Some of the protesters waved flags with messages of support for President Donald Trump. Mr. Trump, in turn, tweeted support for their goals.

“The Democrat Party in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia are working hard to take away your 2nd Amendment rights,” he tweeted. “This is just the beginning. Don’t let it happen, VOTE REPUBLICAN in 2020!

The Virginia State Police, the Virginia Capitol police and the Richmond Police had a heavy presence, with officers deploying on rooftops, others patrolling in cars and on bicycles.

Authorities were looking to avoid a repeat of the violence that erupted in Charlottesville during one of the largest gatherings of white supremacists and other far-right groups in a decade. Attendees brawled with counterprotesters, and an avowed white supremacist drove his car into a crowd, killing a woman and injuring dozens more. Law-enforcement officials faced scathing criticism for what both the white supremacist groups and anti-racism protesters said was a passive response.

On Monday, Southern Poverty Law Center staff members attended the rally and identified members of extremist militia groups, including the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, as well as the League of the South, according to outreach director Lecia Brooks. The League of the South, which the centre designates a hate group, advocates for Southern secession.

In contrast to Charlottesville, there was little sign of counterprotesters challenging the gun-rights activists.

Story continues below advertisement

Police limited access to Capitol Square to only one entrance, and a long line formed to get into the rally zone.

Gun-rights advocates also filled the hallways of the building that houses lawmakers’ offices. One couple, Jared and Marie March, travelled from Floyd County, more than three hours west of Richmond, to meet with lawmakers.

“Guns are a way of life where we live,” said Marie March, who was concerned about a proposed red-flag law she said would allow citizens to be stripped of their guns owing to “subjective criteria.” A proposal to establish universal background checks amounted to “more Big Brother,” she said. “We just feel like we need to push government back into their rightful spot.”

Monday’s rally was organized by an influential grassroots gun-rights group, the Virginia Citizens Defense League. The group holds a yearly rally at the Capitol, typically a low-key event with a few hundred gun enthusiasts listening to speeches from a handful of ambitious Republican lawmakers. But this year’s event was unprecedented. Second Amendment groups have identified the state as a rallying point for the fight against what they see as a national erosion of gun rights.

The pushback against proposed new gun restrictions began immediately after Democrats won majorities in both the state Senate and House of Delegates in November, with much of the opposition focused on a proposed assault weapons ban. More than 100 localities have since passed measures declaring support for the Second Amendment.

Erich Pratt, senior vice-president of Gun Owners of America, said voters need to replace the Democrats in control of the government in Virginia.

Story continues below advertisement

“We need to throw the bums out. We need to clean house in the next election,” he told the crowd.

House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert complimented the behaviour of the rally-goers and said Democrats should take a lesson from them.

“The law-abiding gun owners in attendance today are the ones who would bear the brunt of their anti-gun proposals, which would have little to no impact on crime or criminals,” he said in a statement.

The rally coincided with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, which is typically a chance for everyday citizens to use a day off work to lobby their legislators. However, the threat of violence largely kept other groups away from the Capitol, including gun-control groups that hold an annual vigil for victims of gun violence.

When that event was cancelled, students from March for Our Lives, the movement launched after 17 were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida in 2018, decided they had to do something.

A group of about 15 college students and one high-schooler slept overnight in the offices of two Democratic lawmakers to ensure they could make it into the Capitol area safely. The lawmakers, Mr. Hurst and Delegate Dan Helmer – who’s sponsoring a bill that would block the National Rifle Association from operating an indoor gun range at its headquarters – camped out as well.

Story continues below advertisement

Michael McCabe, a 17-year-old high school senior from northern Virginia, said he was there to underscore the “moral urgency” felt by a generation “unduly affected” by gun violence.

“Our main goal is not to engage with gun extremists today,” Mr. McCabe said. “We are really here to be present in the legislature to make our voices heard.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.

Report an error
Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

To view this site properly, enable cookies in your browser. Read our privacy policy to learn more.
How to enable cookies