Thursday, July 02, 2020

Thousands of gun rights activitists descend on Virginia's capital

Jan 21. 2020
Brandon Lewis, of Bergen, New York, carries a .50-caliber Barrett M82A1 rifle at a pro-gun rally in Richmond, Virginia, on Jan. 20, 2020. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Julia Rendleman
Brandon Lewis, of Bergen, New York, carries a .50-caliber Barrett M82A1 rifle at a pro-gun rally in Richmond, Virginia, on Jan. 20, 2020. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Julia Rendleman
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By The Washington Post · Hannah Natanson, Gregory S. Schneider, Laura Vozzella, Michael E. Miller, Patricia Sullivan

RICHMOND, Va. - Thousands of gun rights supporters across the state and country gathered Monday in Richmond for a rally in opposition to gun-control laws being advanced by the General Assembly's new Democratic majority. 

Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, ordered a state of emergency and banned guns from Capitol Square days before the rally after threats of potential violence. Those willing to shed their weapons gathered to hear a series of pro-gun speakers inside a designated area.

The crowd at the gun rights rally in Richmond, Virginia, on Jan. 20, 2020. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Julia Rendleman

Others carrying weapons crowded in the streets outside the Capitol complex. In some areas, the sea of gun-toting, camouflage-wearing humanity was so thick people could not move. 

Flags bristled from the throng - American flags, "Don't Tread on Me" flags, militia flags. Squadrons of militias formed lines and executed marches, then sat along the curb and warmed their hands and rested their weapons.

Thousands line the streets before the official kickoff of the gun-rights rally in Richmond, Va., on Jan. 20, 2020. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Julia Rendleman

As the crowds grew on Richmond's streets and the lines coming through the screening for Capitol Square slowed, police said they were pleased the morning had remained relatively uneventful.

Virginia State Police 1st Sgt. James White noted a small number of incidents at the metal detectors. For much of the morning, rallygoers entering through 17 separate gates - many of them clad in metal buckles, boot grommets and heavy zippers - had quietly shed the problematic clothes as officers passed handheld detectors over their bodies.

Anna-Marie Lewis puts a

"Ninety-nine point nine percent of the people are peaceful," White said.

Still, White kept a worried eye on the area just outside the fenced-in screening posts, where other protesters - many clad in camouflage and balaclavas - toted weapons, chanted, paraded and cheered for their cause.

The rally featured roughly a dozen slated speakers, including politicians, conservative pundits and well-known gun rights activists.

Dick Heller, whose landmark lawsuit a decade ago toppled the District of Columbia's gun ban, kicked things off by referencing the gun sanctuary movement in Virginia, which seeks to declare cities and counties "Second Amendment sanctuaries" that will not enforce any gun-control measures passed by the Democratic-controlled General Assembly.

"The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed!" Heller shouted, as the crowd chanted the text of the Second Amendment right along with him.

Soon afterward, state Del. John McGuire, R-Goochland, stepped up to address the protesters. He wasted no time in invoking President Donald Trump, who has been an outspoken supporter of the gun rights rally.

Over the weekend, Trump tweeted a warning that Democrats in Virginia - whose General Assembly recently flipped to blue for the first time in a generation - wanted to "take your guns away." 

"Let me hear it if you are sick and tired of Republicans who do not support Donald Trump," McGuire said, prompting a long and raucous cheer.

In the crowd, Chris Anders of Loudoun County, Virginia, gathered signatures for a petition demanding the recall of the governor. "People are tired of someone trying to roll over them," Anders said of Northam.

Northam has said he will limit handgun purchases to one per month, forbid military-style weapons and silencers and pass a "red flag" law that would permit authorities to temporarily take away weapons from anyone deemed a threat. 

His promises carry significant weight after Democrats won majorities in both the House of Delegates and the state Senate for the first time in a generation. In response, more than 110 counties, cities and towns across Virginia have passed some type of resolution in support of gun rights. 

To many gun rights advocates, the Monday's rally is a key, high-profile opportunity to publicly voice defiance.

Erich Pratt, senior vice president of Gun Owners of America, charged Northam with acting against the Constitution when he barred guns from the rally. Northam's ban was swiftly challenged in court, but ultimately upheld by the Virginia Supreme Court.

"Democrats in the state are demonstrating . . . unadulterated power without authority," Pratt said. "No one listening to my voice should never, ever vote for the party of gun control!" 

Able Cunningham, 23, made the 14-hour drive from north-central Arkansas. "I'm not a gun nut," said Cunningham, who manufactures equipment for Bad Boy Mowers. 

The prospect of stricter gun laws coming to Virginia under the General Assembly's new Democratic majority seemed especially galling to him because of the state's history, he said, of standing up to oppression in the Revolutionary and Civil wars.

"I'm not taking sides with the Confederates or anything. I'm not that twisted," Cunningham added.

Some in the crowd said that their guns were not just for show, but also in case they needed to defend themselves. One rallygoer turned to a friend and suggested sticking to "the outskirts . . . in case something goes wrong." 

The gun in Brandon Lewis' hands was enormous: a .50-caliber Barrett M82A1 rifle, more commonly seen on battlefields than in downtown Richmond. Lewis - who drove down from Bergen, New York, where he owns a shooting range - showed up dressed in a helmet and bulletproof vest, one of scores of protesters who opted to attend the rally heavily armed.

"This sends a strong visual message," Lewis said, patting his rifle. "The government is not above us. They are us." 

Passersby stopped at the sight of Lewis's weapon, asked for selfies and told him it was a "helluva gun." 

Elsewhere in the crowd, Justin Burns, 19, and his friend Spencer George, 30, flaunted their own arsenals: Both had strapped assault-style rifles across their chests, with bullets visible in the clips. Spanning the men's bulletproof vests were more ammo clips.

The duo, both welders, had driven 10 hours to attend the rally. They brought the rifles, Burns said, in case anything goes wrong.

"All it takes is one person to make a bad decision and fire off a round for things to go sideways," Burns said.

Clutching his AR-15-style rifle, George said it felt "awesome" to see so many gun-toting gun rights activists gathered in one place. The sea of weaponry, he said, made him feel less alone.

After the speeches wrapped up, rallygoers began marching along the streets of downtown Richmond - including Joe Evans, who hoisted a sign bearing black and red Chinese characters. Evans' poster stood out amid a flood of Trump paraphernalia and "Don't Tread On Me" signs.

One place in Richmond remained quiet and calm during the rally: inside the Capitol building, where senators and delegates came to caucus and then start floor sessions at noon.

 

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