THE STAGE IS SET FOR RESISTANCE
McLEAN, Va. – No guns allowed at the gun rights rally.
That’s the word from Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, who announced Wednesday that he plans to declare an emergency and ban firearms around the state Capitol before a gun rights rally Monday that could draw thousands of armed people and militias from Virginia and out of state.
Gun rights advocates organizing the event promised a “peaceful day to address our Legislature” in Richmond, but their efforts sparked a much larger, grassroots movement that has drawn interest from gun owners and militias around the country.
Northam said at a news conference that intelligence from law enforcement agencies indicates that out-of-state militias and hate groups fueled by misinformation and conspiracy theories have “malicious plans” for the rally.
“They’re not coming to peacefully protest. They are coming to intimidate and cause harm,” Northam said.
Northam said he will declare a state of emergency in Richmond from Friday evening through Tuesday evening. Under the order, city, state and Capitol police will form a unified command, state employees are encouraged to stay home for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, and all weapons will be banned in the Capitol Square.
“It makes no sense to ban every other weapon but allow firearms,” Northam said. After the emergency expires Tuesday, most firearms will be allowed on the grounds. Virginia is an open-carry state.
Northam said the decision was a response to threats, some of them made online in forums hosted by hate groups and white nationalists. The governor called on rally organizers to dissuade out-of-state groups from coming to the rally and encouraged a “peaceful day” for Virginians.
“Unfortunately, they have unleashed something much larger – something that they may not be able to control,” he said.
“No one wants another incident like the one we saw at Charlottesville in 2017. We will not allow that mayhem and violence to happen here,” Northam said, referring to a white nationalist rally where clashes broke out and a counterprotester was killed.
Philip Van Cleave, who is organizing the Richmond rally as president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said the event is still on. He said his group will weigh how to respond to Northam’s ban, depending on the specifics.
“Hell no, he’s not going to stop it with that little act,” Van Cleave told USA TODAY, adding that his group could pursue legal action.
“The governor and leadership in the Democratic Party have declared war on law-abiding gun owners, and they’re tired of it,” Van Cleave said. “It’s basically people saying we’re fed up. We’ve had enough.
“The governor has touched the third rail. He has motivated people to drive across the state and from other states to come protect our rights.”
Van Cleave promised upward of 100,000 armed gun owners in Richmond in hopes to dissuade enough Democrats to scrap or weaken the proposals.
Stickers and posters displayed in meetings around the state declared, “Guns save lives” and “We will not comply.” Pro-gun websites and social media spread messages against government “tyrants” coming to take people’s guns and urged their audiences to travel to Virginia to support the effort.
Van Cleave’s group issued fiery warnings of what could happen to gun owners should the measures pass.
“All these bills are basically steps in the direction of disarming people,” he said.
Northam has worked to dispel the idea that he intends to go “door-to-door” with authorities to take away people’s guns.
“We have no intention of calling out the National Guard. We’re not going to cut off people’s electricity. We’re not going to go door-to-door and confiscate individual’s weapons,” Northam said Jan. 7 alongside Democratic lawmakers. “We are going to pass common-sense legislation that will keep guns out of dangerous hands and keep Virginia safer. It is just that simple.”
Among the proposals: Limiting handgun purchases to one per month, expanding background checks on gun sales, allowing localities to ban guns in some public areas and a “red flag” bill that would allow authorities to temporarily take guns away from anyone deemed dangerous to themselves or others.
Those measures were advanced by Democrats in the state Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday. Others include rules about reporting lost or stolen firearms and a ban on “assault firearms,” though some moderate Democrats expressed concerns over that bill.
Virginia Democrats’ proposals are no more extreme than many other states’ gun control measures, said Ernest McGowen, a political science professor at the University of Richmond.
“When you really drill down into it, it’s definitively a swing to the left but not one of those things where Northam is saying, ‘Take away everyone’s guns,’ ” he said.
Similar proposals have not been struck down as unconstitutional for violating the Second Amendment, but any legal battle that ensues could have ramifications for other states, McGowen said.
“Virginia is the canary in the coal mine,” Van Cleave said. Out-of-state groups and militias may attend the Richmond event because “they’re looking down the road. If Virginia gets hit with this stuff, they’re going to be next,” he said.
Though he said the Virginia Citizens Defense League has been in contact with police, militia groups from in and out of state “volunteered to provide security … not to mention enough citizens armed with handguns to take over a modern mid-sized country,” the group said in a publication.
Van Cleave said the event is different from others that have drawn out-of-state rallygoers, such as the Unite the Right white nationalist demonstration that turned violent. A neo-Nazi killed counterprotester Heather Heyer and injured others when he rammed his car into a crowd.
“Charlottesville was a protest. We’re lobbying,” Van Cleave said.
Since November’s election, more than 100 counties, cities and towns across the state have declared themselves “sanctuaries” for the Second Amendment, saying they will not enforce unconstitutional laws.
Though the resolutions are largely symbolic, many sheriffs have come out in support of them. In some counties, thousands of people swarmed boards of supervisors meetings in support of the measures.
Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring said last month that the resolutions have “no legal force” as localities “cannot nullify state laws.”
“They’re just part of an effort by the gun lobby to stoke fear,” he said in a statement.
Groups supporting the gun control legislation backed by Democrats said the election in November showed that voters approve of the proposals. Among both Democrats and Republicans, gun laws were the most important voting issue before the election, according to a Washington Post-George Mason poll.
“Virginians made their voices heard in November when they voted overwhelmingly for candidates who ran on promises to pass common-sense gun safety laws,” said Michelle Sandler, a volunteer with Virginia Moms Demand Action. “The extremist armed militias heading to Richmond next Monday are not representative of the majority of Virginians.”
Though Virginia turned blue in the election, Democratic voters generally are not as far left as others in the party nationwide, McGowen said. Democratic lawmakers and Northam face the challenge of establishing gun control measures their entire base will support, McGowen said.
“Just because they voted for Northam doesn’t mean they are necessarily for every part of his agenda,” McGowen said.
If Democrats push forward with the gun proposals, Van Cleave said, his group’s supporters will rally support to flip the state Legislature again in two years.
“Look, they’ve woken up a base that’s been sleeping. … Purple areas will turn bright red,” he said. “They’re going to pay for this at the polls.”
DAWG SAYS: THE LID IS GOING TO BLOW OFF SOONER THAN LATER VIRGINIA MAY BE IT.