Gun rights supporters flood downtown Richmond in peaceful rally

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP/WHSV) — Thousands of gun-rights activists from around the country rallied peacefully at the Virginia Capitol on Monday, protesting plans by the state's Democratic leadership to pass gun-control legislation that have become a key flashpoint in the national debate over gun violence.

Virginia Capitol officials estimated the total number of attendees at 22,000 – with about 6,000 who went through Virginia State Police security screening to get into Capitol Square and about 16,000 outside the gates in downtown Richmond.

Live updates from throughout the day, including images and videos, can be found in a timeline at the bottom of this article.

Gov. Northam declared a temporary state of emergency days ahead of the rally, banning all weapons, including guns, from the event on Capitol Square. The size of the rally 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.

The rally concluded around noon and remained, by all accounts, peaceful. The streets emptied out relatively quickly in the hours afterward.

Most attendees our reporters and our affiliates' reporters spoke to throughout the morning said they planned to head home on Monday afternoon.

Following an initial statement that said there were zero arrests made, Virginia Capitol officials said an officer working Lobby Day made one arrest during the day's events. Mikaela E. Beschler, a 21-year-old Richmond woman, was arrested in the 800 block of East Broad St. and charged with one felony count of wearing a mask in public after police say the officer warned her twice about a bandanna covering her face and then saw her a third time wearing it. She was released on bond.

Many people were seen in Richmond's streets with their faces completely covered, some of them carrying weapons, but no other arrests were made during the rally. Virginia has a state law banning the wearing of masks in public, or anything which effectively covers your face and conceals your identity, so that prompted some questions on social media. Some sources say enforcement of that law varies in extreme cold. Temperatures remained near or below freezing throughout the morning and afternoon. The official wording of the law on the books provides multiple exceptions, but not for weather.

All weapons carried by protesters were carried outside of Capitol Square, where it was perfectly legal to do so, because the state of emergency upheld by the Supreme Court of Virginia only pertained to Capitol Square, which the Virginia governor is granted authority over under law.

A small number of members of white nationalist and various extremist groups were photographed and recorded in Richmond during Monday's rally, but they made up just a handful of people out of thousands upon thousands in the city.

Overall, the mood throughout the day was largely festive. Attendees spilled into the streets, chanting “USA” and waving signs denouncing Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam. Chants broke out on occasion calling for Northam to leave office, and crowds frequently began reciting the Pledge of Allegiance or singing the National Anthem.

No violence was reported at all.

The protesters, who were mostly white and male, came out in strong numbers Monday despite the frigid temperatures to send a message to legislators, they said. Many wore camouflage; Some waved flags with messages of support for President Donald Trump.

“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.”

Others carried signs with messages like "I want gay married couples to be able to protect their marijuana plants with guns."

The Virginia State Police, the Virginia Capitol Police and the Richmond Police had a strong presence. Police limited access to Capitol Square to only one entrance and warned rally-goers they may have to wait hours to get past security screening.

With that expectation, many arrived in the early hours of the morning to begin waiting in line to get into Capitol Square. Others simply stuck to Richmond's streets and stayed outside of Capitol Square. The weapons ban only applied to that area, so any armed protesters did not pass through the entrances. Many stood just outside the fenced-in area.

Authorities were looking to avoid a repeat of the violence that erupted in 2017 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.

Following the rally on Monday, Virginia politicians released the following public statements:

Governor Ralph Northam:

We are all thankful that today passed without incident. The teams successfully de-escalated what could have been a volatile situation. This resulted from weeks of planning and extensive cooperation among state, local, and federal partners in Virginia and beyond.

Virginia’s law enforcement and first responders demonstrated tremendous professionalism. I’m proud of their work. I have spoken with Colonel Settle of the State Police, Colonel Pike of the Capitol Police, and Chief Smith of the Richmond Police Department, as well as leaders of the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office, and thanked them for keeping Virginia safe.

Thousands of people came to Richmond to make their voices heard. Today showed that when people disagree, they can do so peacefully. The issues before us evoke strong emotions, and progress is often difficult. I will continue to listen to the voices of Virginians, and I will continue to do everything in my power to keep our Commonwealth safe.

House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert:

"I want to thank the tens of thousands of Virginians who came out to make their voices heard at today’s Second Amendment Lobby Day. The crowd was exactly what it has been in years past -- peaceful, respectful, and orderly -- except much, much larger. More than 20,000 people gathered with no arrests and no injuries. They even picked up their own trash.

"Even when thrown a last-minute curveball by Governor Northam, Virginia’s Second Amendment community accepted it with grace and did what they always do -- make their voices heard while complying with the law. Those who wanted to go into buildings or onto Capitol Square disarmed, while those who did not wish to do so stood outside the security perimeter. I also want to thank the hundreds of law enforcement personnel who spent a day out in the cold, working to ensure everyone’s safety.

“I hope Virginia Democrats take a lesson from today’s peaceful rally. 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. Meanwhile, Democrats are working to release more criminals onto the streets before they complete their sentences. Keeping our communities safe requires us to focus on those who break the law, not those who scrupulously abide by it.”

John March, chairman of the Republican Party of Virginia:

Much to the chagrin of Virginia Democrats, today's Second Amendment rally was an incredible and peaceful success. Thousands of Virginians, armed and unarmed, came to Richmond today to lobby their representatives for an issue about which they feel passionate. After all, these law-abiding citizens have a lot on the line this year. Many of them will face unjust persecution as a direct result of the Democrats' legislative agenda.

The biggest losers of the day were ratings and clicks, because Virginia's Second Amendment supporters were able to make their voices heard without making a scene or causing a disturbance.

"We are thrilled at how many Virginians came to Richmond today," said RPV Chairman Jack Wilson. "I am not surprised that today's rally ended peacefully. Law-abiding citizens tend to abide by the law, regardless of their environment."

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, many more were expected. 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. Much of the opposition has focused on a proposed assault weapons ban.

Virginia Democrats are also backing bills limiting handgun purchases to once a month, implementing universal background checks on gun purchases, allowing localities to ban guns in public buildings, parks and other areas, and a red flag bill that would allow authorities to temporarily take guns away from anyone deemed to be dangerous to themselves or others.

Jesse Lambert was dressed in mix of colonial era minute-man garb and cargo pants, with a Colt rifle strapped across his back. He said he traveled from Louisiana to show opposition to the gun control bills. He said their efforts would unfairly punish law-abiding gun owners, particularly those who own AR-style rifles.

“These are your average common people carrying firearms that are in common use,” he said.

The rally coincides 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 canceled, students from March for Our Lives, the movement launched after 17 were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in 2018, decided they had to do something.

A group of about 15 college students and one high schooler came to Richmond on Sunday and slept overnight in the offices of two Democratic lawmakers to ensure they could make it into the Capitol area safely. Del. Dan Helmer, who’s sponsoring a bill that would block the National Rifle Association from operating an indoor gun range at its headquarters, and Del. Chris Hurst, a gun control advocate whose TV journalist girlfriend was killed in an on-air shooting in 2015, camped out alongside them.

The students planned to spend the day lobbying.

Michael McCabe, a 17-year-old high school senior from northern Virginia, said he started lobbying at the General Assembly after the Sandy Hook mass shooting, when he was 11 years old.

In an interview in Helmer’s office, McCabe said the students wanted to be a voice for other gun-control advocates.

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

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Photo credit: WHSV