Protest of Virginia’s Proposed Gun Laws Ends Peacefully
RICHMOND, Va — Thousands of mostly white men — many decked out in camouflage and armed with assault-style rifles — packed Richmond’s streets Monday, circling the gun-free Capitol Square, where thousands more waved signs and listened to speeches, all wanting to make one point: They weren’t going anywhere, and their gun rights shouldn’t either.
“I think there’s an assault on the Second Amendment,” said 60-year-old Richmond resident Danny Tumer, who was standing in line to get into the grounds at 6:30 a.m.
Tensions have been building across the state since Democrats gained a majority in the legislature and vowed to enact tighter gun control laws following the May mass shooting in Virginia Beach. As lawmakers filed bills to limit handgun purchases and require universal background checks, gun owners packed local government chambers, demanding localities not enforce any legislation they considered an infringement on their Second Amendment rights.
Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, had placed Richmond under a state of emergency prior to the event, saying the annual Virginia Citizens Defense League lobby day and rally Monday — which was also Martin Luther King Jr. Day — had drawn the attention of militia and out-of-state groups who have come to “intimidate” and “cause harm.”
He banned weapons from statehouse grounds, and anyone who wanted to be on Capitol Square had to pass through metal detectors and have their bags searched, causing lengthy lines. Many protesters wore orange stickers with the words “Guns SAVE Lives.”
Throughout the morning, the overwhelmingly pro-gun crowd, many from out of state, remained peaceful. There were only small groups of counterprotesters. Officials estimated 6,000 people were inside Capitol square, with another 16,000 outside the gates.
At around 1:30 p.m., after the crowd had dispersed, the state Twitter page VACapitol2020 tweeted that no arrests had been made. Many of the participants left on charter buses by 2 p.m.
In signs and speeches, people recalled Northam’s scandal from nearly a year ago, when a racist photo of someone in blackface and someone in Ku Klux Klan robes was discovered on his medical school yearbook page. Northam first admitted to being in the photo and later recanted while elected officials across the state called for his resignation.
Speakers also urged the crowd to vote in November, though no General Assembly legislator will be on the ballot then. Two Republican delegates, Nick Freitas and John McGuire, used their time with the microphone to promote their campaign for the 7th Congressional District.
Waving “Trump 2020” flags, the crowd often turned to a chant of “four more years”.
The most contentious of Northam’s proposed laws, which rally-goers repeatedly referred to, would ban certain “assault firearms”.
House Bill 961 defines “assault firearms” as semi-automatic, center-fire rifles and pistols that have more than 10 rounds, as well as rifles and pistols with detachable magazines and the ability to attach bump stocks, suppressors and other accessories. Semi-automatic shotguns with a fixed magazine of more than seven rounds and all magazines that hold more than 10 rounds would also banned.
The bill says people who already own these types of guns would have to get a nontransferable permit from the state police within six months of the law going into effect, and by January 2026, police would have to review the criminal records for anyone who’s ever applied for a permit.
In banning weapons from the Capitol grounds, Northam said intelligence officials had received “credible, serious threats” of violence for the rally comparable to those targeted toward Charlottesville, where in 2017 neo-Nazis and white supremacists clashed with counter protesters and a woman was killed.
By 8:30 am, the Capitol Square grounds started to fill up, with people standing on the hillside in front of the Capitol steps watching crowds of mostly men — many armed with AR-15s — on the other side of the fence and chanting things like “Northam out” and “USA.”
Trevor O’Connor, 21, traveled with friends from Nashville, Tenn., to show solidarity. Armed with an AR-15 and 170 rounds of ammunition, he stood in front of SunTrust Bank on East Main and 10th streets. Attached to his vest, he carried a mask to protect him from tear gas if things turn ugly.
He said he fears more-stringent gun regulations could come to his state next.
“If it could happen to Virginia, it could happen to Tennessee,” he said.
He said the police were the only people he felt threatened by on Monday. He said they asked him for his exact address.
“Cops are putting a lot of pressure on us,” O’Connor said.
Some law enforcement officers were welcomed by protesters, though.
Grayson County Sheriff Richard Vaughan appeared outside Capitol Square with his deputies and a sign that said, “We support the Second Amendment.” His county supported becoming a Second Amendment Sanctuary City in December.
He said he wouldn’t enforce stricter gun laws. Many people stopped to shake his hand and thank him.
“We are the last line of defense for our citizens and if these bills pass as proposed, they are unconstitutional and will not be enforced,” Vaughan said. “It is our God given right to defend ourselves.”
Several of the proposed measures, including extreme risk protection orders in which a judge could order a person’s gun be taken if they are considered a threat, have been passed in other states and upheld in court.
Karen Blackville said she drew up her will and power of attorney and left it behind for her oldest son before arriving at Monday’s rally.
“Hope for the best, prepare for the worst,” she said.
Blackville, 56, lives in Hanover County and isn’t a gun owner but has owned guns in the past. She said she’s a survivor of domestic violence and wants to protect her right to own guns in the future. She’s against a proposal that would limit some indoor gun ranges, fearful that it would hinder people’s ability to get training.
Protesters arrived by buses from across the state, while others came in from places like Tennessee, Florida, Kentucky, New York and Connecticut.
Roberto Minuta, a 33-year-old tattoo artist from New York, chose not to bring any guns, saying he didn’t want to “come in and look like a radical.”
He’s upset about the stricter gun laws his state has passed and said he doesn’t want to see Virginia suffer the same fate.
“I realize that yes, I’m one person, but if everyone had that mindset, no one would be here,” he said.
Republican lawmakers who were featured speakers at the rally questioned Democrats’ motives with their gun legislation.
“I don’t want to hear anything more from my Democratic colleagues that this is about safety,” said Freitas.
Peter Helms, 63, of Franklin rode on a bus to Richmond on Monday morning to support the Second Amendment. With people he just met, the retired corrections guard stood outside of a fence surrounding the Capitol grounds around 9 a.m.
He said he never thought he’d see a governor trying to restrict gun rights. He opposed the gun-free zone.
“I feel safer with the militias than I do walking down the streets of Norfolk,” he said.
Randy Kushner, 68, lives in Front Royal but stayed in his lake house outside of Richmond to get to the rally early.
When asked about the proposed gun laws, he said, “I’m opposed to all of it because none of them makes sense.”
He said he’s against universal background checks.
“Gun tragedies are a small price to pay for liberty,” he said, holding up a sign that says “guns are a right, not a privilege.”
Siblings Ann Goodson and Gene Sours grew up around guns, mostly bird hunting as young children with their family in rural Virginia.
The rally was their first time being part of a protest. They were there to support gun rights — to them, a gun was a tool, something to put food on the table, said Goodson, 64, a nurse from Charlottesville.
“Until I pick that gun up and pull the trigger it’s not harming anyone,” she said.
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