January 20, 2020
Governor declared a state of emergency ahead of rally, citing ‘threats of violence’ from militia and hate groups
Virginia rally: thousands expected to protest against gun control bills
Tens of thousands of gun rights activists kicked off a noisy rally in Virginia’s capital on Monday in opposition to a slate of gun control bills introduced by the state government’s new Democratic majority.
Virginia’s governor, Ralph Northam, had declared a state of emergency on Wednesday, citing “threats of violence”, in an effort to avoid a repeat of violence that erupted at a 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, when a march by white nationalists led to the death of a counter-protester.
Northam said there was “credible” law enforcement intelligence that militia groups and hate groups, some from out of state, were planning to attend the rally for the purposes of “violence, rioting and insurrection”. The governor also temporarily banned all weapons, including firearms, on the grounds of the capitol in Richmond, where a pro-gun rally is slated to be held later Monday morning.
Some local activists believed that the governor’s ban on weapons at the capitol would result in larger numbers of armed militia members and other pro-gun activists wandering around downtown Richmond, outside the area where guns are banned.
Local anti-fascist activists from Richmond and Charlottesville announced over the weekend that they would not be holding any counter-protests, citing safety concerns.
Donald Trump acknowledged and encouraged the rally on Twitter on Monday.
On Saturday, after a security briefing for lawmakers, Virginia’s Republican house minority leader put out a public statement condemning “any group that comes to Richmond to spread white supremacist garbage”.
“While we and our Democratic colleagues may have differences, we are all Virginians and we will stand united in opposition to any threats of violence or civil unrest from any quarter,” Todd Gilbert wrote.
As buses full of pro-gun activists from across Virginia and the country arrived in Richmond on Monday morning, many are likely to be on edge.
Tensions in Virginia have run high since November 2019, when Democrats won control of the state government for the first time in 26 years and pledged to pass a package of gun control laws, from universal background checks to an extreme risk protection order law to a ban on military-style assault weapons.
Since then, pro-gun activists across Virginia have organized a vigorous grassroots movement to protest against the new bills. More than 125 counties, cities and towns have passed “second amendment sanctuary” resolutions that would respect gun owners’ rights and not enforce any state gun laws deemed to be unconstitutional.
Virginia’s second amendment sanctuary movement has attracted hundreds and even thousands of supporters at local government meetings, drawing comparisons to the Tea Party movement.
The political standoff over new gun laws in Virginia, the state where the National Rifle Association (NRA) is headquartered, has also prompted spiraling conspiracy theories and intense rhetoric from gun owners about tyranny and civil war.
The event is being closely watched by white supremacists and anti-government militia members nationwide, who have hailed the tensions as the potential beginning of societal breakdown. In recent days, extremist chatrooms have been full of rumors the event is a trap, and that it will be infiltrated by crisis actors, according to an analyst at the Anti-Defamation League, which monitors extremists.
Lies, conspiracy theories and misinformation about Democrats’ proposed gun control bills have circulated widely, prompting outrage and threats of violence against Democratic politicians.
Lee Carter, Virginia’s only socialist state legislator, has been the target of multiple death threats over a bill pro-gun activists misinterpreted as an infringement on their rights.
Speaking to the Guardian about the threats, Carter said there had been frequent mentions of Monday’s pro-gun protest. “A lot of people [have been] saying, ‘We’re going to kick off the second American civil war,” he said. “This guy is going to be the first one to die. Make sure you show up armed.”
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