RICHMOND — Thousands of gun-rights advocates packed the streets around the Virginia Capitol on Monday, bristling with weapons, flags and threats of insurrection but never erupting into the violence authorities had feared.

Armed militias carrying assault-style weapons marched in formation until the crowds grew too thick. Protesters without firearms filed through 17 metal detectors at a single entrance to Capitol Square, where about 6,000 people cheered fiery speeches on the Second Amendment. A far larger crowd remained outside the square, where they could keep their weapons.

This was the aftershock of last fall’s elections, when thousands of Virginia voters gave majorities in the General Assembly to Democrats who promised to enact gun-control laws. The losing side of that equation thundered through this city’s streets on Monday, backed up by self-styled patriots from all over the country.

Read full story here, and background and chronological updates below.

8:50 p.m.
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Woman arrested for covering her face with bandana

Police reported one arrest, of Mikaela E. Beschler, 21, of Richmond.

Beschler was arrested in the 800 block of East Broad Street about 1:30 p.m. by a Richmond police officer who was working Lobby Day, authorities said. She was charged with one felony count of wearing a mask in public.

Police said the officer saw Beschler three times with a bandanna covering her face, and had warned her twice to adjust the bandanna.

By Patrica Sullivan

8:02 p.m.
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‘Why do you need something so big to go the range?’

The paucity of protesters meant that there were few confrontations. For the most part, if strangers spoke to one another, it was to compliment a sign or a firearm.

As the crowd began to thin out, however, one heated conversation drew a small gathering of onlookers.

“Why do you need to have that gun?” Paul Karns asked a 19-year-old in a black leather jacket with a massive .338-caliber Lapua precision rifle slung proudly over his shoulder.

“Don’t let him antagonize you!” someone shouted behind the teen.

“If the military has it, then I can have it,” added another onlooker.

“Are you in the military?” Karns replied. “Have you been trained?”

The issue was intensely personal for Karns, a writer who was working not far away when he decided to check out the rally.

Twenty years ago, he said, he was in graduate school at the University of Arkansas when he witnessed a disgruntled student shoot and kill a faculty member — a shooting that made national news. A few years later, Karns himself was shot when he intervened to help a neighbor. He said the incidents had left him with PTSD, a scar on his shoulder and a belief that people shouldn’t be allowed to own “military-grade” weapons.

“Why do you need something so big to go the range?” he pressed the teen with the precision rifle.

The teen said the massive gun was for hunting and target shooting.

After a tense 10 minutes — much of it filmed by onlookers — the talk ended with a handshake.

But Karns left the conversation frustrated.

“These guys walk around with their displays of huge weapons,” he said, shaking his head as a man walked past in full-body camo, with a bulletproof vest, a handgun and an AR-15-style assault rifle. “It makes them feel safer. But it doesn’t make a lot of other people feel safer.”

By Michael E. Miller

7:30 p.m.
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‘It was kind of fun’: Some Richmond businesses get a boost post-rally

Though most eateries downtown were closed, the few that stayed open were rewarded with brisk business as a flood of freezing gun rights activists sought to warm their hands with a warm cup of whatever.

At the Sefton Coffee Co. on North Eighth Street, a block away from one of the busiest entry points for the rally, the line snaked out the door for much of the day. By midday, three trash bins out front were overflowing with drained coffees and discarded lattes. Owner Jennie Skinner said the decision to stay open was economic: after a slow holiday period, she thought the cafe could use the foot traffic.

“I did catch a lot of grief at first,” she said of her decision. “Friends, family, people down here couldn’t believe I was staying open. But the people who know me well know it’s not a political decision.”

“Thank you for being open,” said a man with a “Guns Save Lives” sticker on his coat as he walked out of the small cafe.

“I will take this business,” Skinner said, waving to the man. The decision had paid off. The cafe had been so busy she had run out of some kinds of milk.

Skinner had been startled when some customers began showing up Sunday with assault-style rifles across their chests. She had meant to put out a sign asking people to leave guns and placards at the door but hadn’t had time. In the end, however, it wasn’t necessary. The guns hadn’t been an issue.

“Everyone has been beyond pleasant,” she said. “In fact, it was kind of fun.”

At the Wake Cafe on Franklin Street, two and a half blocks from the square, owner Wade Thomas said the day had been the store’s busiest since it opened seven months ago, with at least 200 separate sales since opening at 8 a.m.

“These were not our usual Monday customers,” he said, “but people needed a place to get warm and have a cup of coffee, so we were going to be here.”

Like other cafe owners downtown, Thomas said the decision to stay open wasn’t meant as a political stance and that the store hadn’t received any blowback.

“We had no idea what was going to happen,” he said. “But the crowd today was some of the nicest people.”

His 20-year-old daughter, Aubrey, took a break from offering customers free hot chocolate to agree. She said only one person made her uncomfortable: a customer with a giant gun slung across his back.

“I thought, why in the world would you bring that into a restaurant?” she said.

“Even on a day like this, that was odd,” added her dad.

As he went to the front door to close up, Thomas peered at the now-empty 3 p.m. streets.

“It’s so quiet now,” he said. “It’s almost like a normal day.”

By Michael E. Miller

7:00 p.m.
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‘It was the opposite of what they expected’: Rally ends quietly

Thousands of gun rights supporters traveled to Richmond on Jan. 20 for a rally to oppose gun-control proposals. (The Washington Post)

Many in attendance began heading home after — if not during — the hour of speeches, which weren’t clearly audible among the crowds outside the fenced-off area.

In small groups, the gun rights activists lowered their flags and headed toward the buses or cars in which they had come. As they walked through the cold, they remarked on how peaceful the rally had been.

“It was the opposite of what they expected, and what they wanted,” said one man in a “Three Percent” militia shirt who declined to give his name. “I think they set it up to be a powder keg. They kept saying ‘Charlottesville, Charlottesville, Charlottesville.’ ”

Nearby, men with guns on their hips bent to scrape stray stickers representing the Virginia Civil Defense League — a pro-gun advocacy group — off the pavement, or to pick up random detritus off the street.

“People said there were all these potential problems,” said Alex Olenic, 74, his duck-head cane under his arm as he searched for a friend from whom he’d gotten separated. “But there isn’t even any trash.”

By 1:30, the fenced-off area around the Capitol was empty, the fading grass finally visible after being obscured by thousands of bodies all morning.

At Franklin and Ninth streets, a dozen or so remaining Richmond police officers herded people toward the exit.

“Let’s go, keep it moving!” shouted one officer with the gentle urgency of a bouncer at closing time. “You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.”

By Michael E. Miller

6:30 p.m.
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Crowd inside fenced-off, secure pen estimated at 6,000

Roughly 6,000 people passed through secure checkpoints to enter the fenced-off, weapons-free secure area inside Capitol Square on Monday, according to Virginia Public Safety Secretary Brian Moran. Thousands more remained in the streets, where they were permitted to carry weapons.

Despite the crowds, no arrests or gun confiscations had taken place as of the early afternoon Monday, Richmond police said.

At least one man was turned away from the screening gates because officials discovered a handful of metal screws in his pocket — but he was in the minority, according to Capitol police. The vast majority of rallygoers made it in and out without incident.

As the rally wrapped up and thousands headed home, two minor disturbances briefly drew authorities’ attention: First, a pink smoke bomb went off at the intersection of Ninth and E. Franklin streets. Police arrived within seconds, and the smoke dissipated quickly.

Officials then spotted a homemade guillotine inscribed with the words, “The only penalty for treason is death.” Police removed the guillotine and promptly began encouraging people to get out of the street so they could reopen it to traffic.

Within 15 minutes, just a few hundred people remained in the area.

By Patricia Sullivan and Gregory S. Schneider

6:00 p.m.
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Despite massive rally attendance, polls show strong support for gun-control legislation in Virginia

As the afternoon progressed Monday, thousands streamed away from the gun rights rally in Richmond — a gathering that temporarily converted Virginia’s capital into the highest-profile bastion of gun rights advocacy in the country.

But the massive turnout at Monday’s gun rights rally is only part of the story. The majority of Virginia voters favor Democratic proposals to limit gun access, a Washington Post-Schar School poll found in October.

Three out of four voters view gun policy as a “very important” issue, the poll found, and majorities agree with suggested legislation that would ban assault weapons and high-capacity ammunition magazines, and limit gun purchases to one per month.

Also drawing overwhelming support were policies that would expand background checks (88 percent of surveyed Virginians approved), as well as “red flag” legislation that would grant local government the power to remove weapons from someone deemed a danger (82 percent approved).

That support cut across party lines: More than 80 percent of Democrats, independents and Republicans indicated support for enhanced background checks, while more than 70 percent of each group also said they support red flag laws.

Overall, 58 percent of Virginia respondents reported desiring stricter gun laws statewide — roughly similar to the share of state residents who said they favored stronger gun legislation in Post polls from 2007 to 2016.

The Washington Post-Schar School poll was conducted Sept. 25-30 among a random sample of 876 Virginia adults, with a sampling error of plus or minus five percentage points.

By Hannah Natanson

5:30 p.m.
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Among an overwhelmingly white and male crowd, some diverse voices

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’s poster stood out amid a flood of Trump paraphernalia and “Don’t Tread on Me” signs.

Also standing out in the crowd was his wife, a Chinese immigrant who recently obtained her U.S. citizenship. She held a sign that read: “Do I look like a white supremacist?”

The couple had met in Beijing while Evans, who is white, was studying abroad, and have been married for seven years. They drove down from Arlington, Va., with their signs to prove that not everyone attending the rally — or every gun owner — is a white supremacist, or even white.

“I’m an immigrant who’s a new U.S. citizen and I feel like the right to protect ourselves is important,” said Evans’s wife, who declined to give her name.

Evans, an immigration attorney, held a sign with a Chinese proverb that translated as “water can support a ship and water can overturn it.”

“It means that people put you in power, and people can remove you from power,” he said.

Evans described the couple as “gay friendly and immigration friendly” but also passionately pro-gun rights.

“There are more of us than you think in deep blue Arlington,” he said, adding that membership at their local gun range was diverse and included Asians, African Americans, Hispanics and members of the LGBTQ community.

“We believe in equality for everyone,” said Evans, who is an independent. “That’s only possible if we have guns — or responsible people at least.”

As they marched, they were approached by an African American man waving a giant Trump 2020 flag on a 20-foot pole.

“Good afternoon young lady,” said Derrick Gibson. “We are the white supremacists, if you believe the news.”

Gibson, 58, had driven down from Queens, N.Y. He, too, was at pains to point out that there was some diversity among the gun rights advocates in the primarily white crowd.

“How are you doing? I’m Governor Northam in blackface,” he told passersby, drawing laughs.

Northam was the target of much derision. Some signs showed him with a Hitler mustache and Nazi armband. Others showed a now-infamous photo from his medical school yearbook page which depicted one person in blackface and another under a Klan hood. “The man behind the sheet wants your guns,” one such sign said.

“Governor Northam, I think I found the white supremacist,” said one such sign. “Unfortunately it’s you!”

“This is not about race,” said Jonathan Austin, 46, from Chesterfield, Va. Austin, who is black, said he supports universal background checks but thought many of the other proposed gun-control bills went too far. “The government shouldn’t have the right to tell us what kind of guns we can have,” he said.

“Gun Rights Are Also Gay Rights” read a sign held by Brandon Brod, 44.

“My husband and I have collected guns for more than 20 years,” said Brod, who lives in Richmond and said he had attended Lobby Day since 2003. He was raised Quaker and still believes in pacifism, except when it comes to self-defense, he said. The country was a safer place now to be gay than in the mid-1990s, when he came out, he said.

“Northam is making it out like we’re all white supremacists,” Brod said. “But I’m a gay man and a Quaker.”

Brod, who said he’s a Libertarian, added that the response to his sign had been positive.

“I’ve been feeling the love,” he said. “At least 100 people have asked me for a photo, including the militia guys.”

By Michael E. Miller

5:17 p.m.
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Rally featured multiple recitations of Second Amendment

For roughly an hour midday, hundreds of rallygoers crowded into a fenced-off pen and listened to a series of conservative politicians, pundits and activists denounce Democrats, demand gun rights and laud President Trump.

But attendees never kept quiet for long. Peppered among the speeches were multiple, speaker-led recitations of the Second Amendment, and at least two repetitions of the Pledge of Allegiance.

Sen. Amanda F. Chase (R-Chesterfield) — who drew attention last year for wearing a .38 special on her hip on the Senate floor — was the first speaker. She, like others, read the Second Amendment verbatim as part of her brief remarks.

When she got to “shall not be infringed,” the crowd joined in.

By Laura Vozzella and Hannah Natanson

5:15 p.m.
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Inside legislative offices, peace prevails

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.

A few (unarmed) protesters had come in to escape the cold.

Warner Workman, 57, of Loudoun County, stationed himself at the top of a stairway that lawmakers had to climb to get to their meetings. In his tricorn hat and American flag shirt, he was hard to miss.

“They see me and I’m obviously not from Greenpeace or whatever,” he said with a laugh. He had buttonholed a dozen or more legislators to remind them of the importance of gun rights.

Aside from a few outer corridors where it was possible to hear the muffled roar of the crowd, the rest of the Capitol was strangely quiet — the young pages told to stay away for safety, a skeleton crew on hand — other than an unusually large contingent of Capitol Police.

Del. Alfonso H. Lopez (D-Arlington) said he had met with several gun lobbyists earlier and had had good conversations. And he had walked by the massive armed crowd on his way into the building. But the huge turnout didn’t outweigh the big numbers at the polls last November, he said, when voters gave Democrats majorities on a promise to pass gun control.

“You will see sensible gun violence prevention legislation pass this year,” he said before heading into a party caucus, in a quiet marble-floored corridor far from the roaring crowds.

By Gregory S. Schneider

5:00 p.m.
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Rally speakers say Virginia Democrats are pursuing ‘unadulterated power’

The rally began with enthusiastic crowds gathered in a partially filled pen. Many there could not see or hear the dozen or so speakers — including politicians, conservative pundits and well-known gun rights advocates — slated to address rallygoers, so they huddled around loudspeakers instead.

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 J. McGuire III (R-Goochland) — who is running to unseat U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger (D-Va.) in a district historically represented by Republicans — stepped up to address the protesters. He wasted no time in invoking President 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.

Erich Pratt, senior vice president of Gun Owners of America, charged Gov. Ralph Northam (D) with acting against the Constitution when he barred guns from Monday’s 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!”

The speeches wrapped up around noon, spurring people to begin leaving the pen, which had never fully filled. As rallygoers streamed away, some attendees distributed signs declaring “2nd amendment is my gun permit.”

Others displayed the infamous photo from Northam’s medical school yearbook, which depicted a man in blackface and another in a Klan hood.

By Patricia Sullivan and Hannah Natanson

4:00 p.m.
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‘Intel proving correct’: Massive crowd turns out for gun rally, fulfilling predictions

By midmorning, it was clear that gun advocates who had predicted an epic turnout were not exaggerating.

Thousands of people packed the streets around the Capitol. On Ninth Street, along the west side of Capitol Square, the sea of gun-toting, camouflage-wearing humanity was so thick people could not move. One group of burly men formed a chain, each holding the backpack of the one in front, to try to make headway down the hill through the crowd. Flags bristled from the throng — American flags, Gadsden (“Don’t Tread on Me”) flags, militia flags. The crowds extended a block below, turned east along a state office building and came back up to the south entrance of the Capitol.

Squadrons of militias formed lines and executed marches, then sat along the curb and warmed their hands and rested their weapons.

A reporter felt his bag snag on something, turned and saw that it had caught the edge of a long assault-style rifle. “Sorry, you’re good,” said the man carrying it, his face concealed behind a mask and dark glasses.

Another man carried a gigantic Barrett M82A1 rifle, probably five feet long, and wore a helmet and body armor. “It’s to draw attention,” said Brandon Lewis, who said he owns an indoor shooting gallery in Upstate New York. He had driven down with his wife to show their support for gun rights.

“It’s a reminder to our politicians that government is by the people and for the people,” he said.

Chants of “U-S-A, U-S-A” broke out every few minutes, but by 10:15 a.m. there were no signs of violence or conflict with law enforcement officers.

“Intel proving correct,” Virginia Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran said in a text message. “Big crowd, several militia members. Peaceful protest so far and hopefully all day.”

While the people jamming the streets were mostly armed, a steady stream of others carrying only signs and cameras waited at the 17 metal detector stations to get inside Capitol Square. A heavy and mostly good-natured police presence guided the lines and kept things moving briskly. Several officers joked and chatted with rallygoers.

In the square, people fanned out across the hill below the white Capitol building. Even within that broad space, though, the crowd was growing heavy ahead of the program of speakers slated to start around 11.

Down the hill and across the street from the Capitol, long lines also formed outside entrances to the Pocahontas Building — or, as one voice in the crowd could be heard saying, “the Elizabeth Warren building.” That was a reference to the slur President Trump has used against the senator from Massachusetts. Trump hats, signs and shirts were popular throughout the crowd.

The crowds going into the Pocahontas Building, which is where lawmakers have their offices, were unarmed. These people were here to lobby their legislators, as residents do every year on Lobby Day. Almost all wore orange “Guns Save Lives” stickers. They packed the lobby and elevators and gathered in hallways outside lawmakers’ offices. Most had appointments to visit with the senator or delegate from their hometown. Groups from the Virginia Citizens Defense League, which organized the rally, had group leaders and assigned offices to visit.

By Gregory S. Schneider

3:30 p.m.
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Police praise peaceful crowd, but caution that rally is far from over

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 the 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.

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

Charley Pierce, a retired federal employee from Nelson County, said most gun rights activists in Richmond have no issue with police.

“Everything is great,” said Pierce, who was not carrying a weapon. “The police are doing their jobs and doing it well.”

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.

At Ninth and Bank streets, several men with binoculars scanned the tops of surrounding buildings, pointing out spots where there appeared to be armed police. 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.”

Back in the pen, White nodded toward an impromptu parade of insurrectionist flag bearers.

“It’s not the people in here you have to worry about,” White said. “It’s the people out there who think they can do anything they want outside the gates.”

3:15 p.m.
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Inside restricted rally area: No guns, but also no bathrooms

Inside the pen, some activists wondered whether the main event was really outside the fenced-in area they’d waited so long to enter.

The much thicker crowd on the streets below had the look of Times Square on New Year’s Eve, with people shoulder to shoulder. While there was some early morning chanting on the square, the crowd seemed to mellow by late morning as sounds from the more raucous street gathering floated up. Wild applause, whistling and a militia’s fife-and-drum corps on the streets mixed with the sounds of police helicopters whirring overhead.

On the streets, people were free to carry guns. And they had access to rows and rows of portable toilets, provided courtesy of the Virginia Citizens Defense League. Those inside the pen had to give up their guns. Gone, too, was any chance for a bathroom break.

On the upside, there was plenty of room to mill around on the grassy square, even with many hundreds inside.

Miranda Smith and her father made their way through the throngs and into the square only to discover another advantage to being outside the gates. In the thick of the crowd, she said, “it’s a lot warmer.”

That said, Smith, a 25-year-old computer programmer from Chesapeake, had no regrets. She had room on the bright if breezy hillside to show off the sign she carried, one she hoped would show that gun rights advocates are not a one-dimensional crowd.

“I want gay married couples to be able to protect their marijuana plants with guns,” it read.

3:00 p.m.
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Gun rights activists sport heavy weaponry

“Is that automatic?” a stranger asked Brandon Lewis.

The gun in Lewis’s hands was enormous: a .50-caliber Barrett M82A1 rifle, more commonly seen on battlefields than in downtown Richmond. Lewis — who drove down from Bergen, N.Y., 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 magazines. Spanning the men’s bulletproof vests were more magazines.

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.

Earlier in the day, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones drove toward Capitol Square in an armored vehicle. Passing bemused pedestrians, Jones — standing half-out of a port atop the Humvee — shouted into a microphone about 1776, the Founding Fathers and “tyranny.”

Alex Jones, the right-wing conspiracy theorist and founder of Infowars, joined pro-gun advocates in Richmond on Jan. 20. (Michael E. Miller/The Washington Post)

It was a message some had already internalized.

“It feels like the walls are closing in on gun owners,” George said. He likened gun-control efforts to the alleged disarming of residents of Nazi Germany: “They disarmed citizens before sending them to death camps. Unarmed people can’t protect themselves.”