VIRGINIA BEACH — The gun owners crowded into the Freedom Shooting Center meeting room Friday night until it was jammed with 200 men and women wearing hunting camo, "tyranny" T-shirts and Trump gear.

They traded warnings about a raft of new gun-control bills being considered by the Virginia General Assembly and made plans to join thousands of gun rights activists for a massive rally in Virginia’s capital Monday.

“It’s worse now,” Robert Mentzer, 62, told a young man in a backward baseball cap who was complaining about one of the gun-control measures introduced days earlier in Richmond. “It has more punch to it. It was an assault weapon ban. Now it’s assault weapons plus others.”

Both men wore bright orange stickers saying “Guns Save Lives.” But the newly elected Democrats who control the state legislature for the first time in a quarter-
century didn’t seem to agree.

In the wake of the November election, gun rights advocates began flooding city and county hearings across the state to demand they declare themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries.”

Nowhere has the state’s sudden and intense gun-control debate been more fraught than in Virginia Beach. Less than eight months after engineer DeWayne Craddock opened fire on his co-workers in a municipal building, the state’s largest city is still struggling to recover.

“VBStrong” stickers have given way to dueling pro- and anti-gun-control signs. Campaign ads mentioning the tragedy have angered some victims’ families. And even survivors of the shooting have been drawn into the tense political debate.

“We don’t even have a scar yet,” Virginia Beach City Council member Aaron Rouse said of the city’s wound. “It’s still very fresh.”

Rouse opposed a resolution declaring Virginia Beach’s support for the Second Amendment because he felt it was too soon to raise such a divisive issue. After an estimated 1,500 gun rights advocates overwhelmed three recent hearings in support of the resolution, however, the controversial measure narrowly passed, upsetting local gun-control advocates.

“It’s really disheartening and disrespectful to the families of the victims that our city council would vote on this less than a year from the mass shooting,” said Sibel Galindez from the local chapter of Moms Demand Action. “Often the gun rights crowd talks about not politicizing a mass shooting. Well my goodness, what a slap in the face.”

But if the shooting has become a rallying cry for those seeking stricter gun laws, then so, too, has it energized the opposition.

“Fear,” Mentzer said when asked to describe his emotions. “That they are going to be taking our guns away.”

President Trump echoed those sentiments Friday, tweeting: “Your 2nd Amendment is under very serious attack in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia. That’s what happens when you vote for Democrats, they will take your guns away. Republicans will win Virginia in 2020. Thank you Dems!”

At the meeting an hour later, which was organized by the ardent gun rights organization Virginia Citizens Defense League, many cited Craddock’s rampage as proof that gun laws need to be relaxed rather than strengthened.

“If someone had been armed, like the lady that wanted to carry her gun, then they might have been able to stop something from happening,” Mentzer said, referencing how one of the victims had wanted to bring her handgun to work the day before the shooting but had been prevented by a city policy against employees carrying weapons.

Although some at the meeting were longtime VCDL members, the organization’s membership has tripled to 24,000 in recent weeks, according to its president, Philip Van Cleave.

Organizers announced they would have 30 buses to take people to Richmond on Monday for what’s known as Lobby Day. And although Gov. Ralph Northam (D) has banned guns from Capitol grounds until Tuesday amid threats by militia members and white supremacists, some in Virginia Beach said they planned on bringing them anyway and protesting nearby in below-freezing temperatures.

“Remember, we crossed the Delaware in the freezing cold,” said organizer Brendan Mooney, likening Lobby Day to the Revolutionary War. “So we can do this.”

'An armed mob'

When the Virginia Beach City Council met Dec. 3, the agenda ranged from an upcoming bond referendum to who would sit on a wetlands board. But it soon became clear that another issue would dominate.

Gun rights advocates filled the chamber. They spilled out into the hallway, then the lobby and then the street, where officials were forced to set up a large screen so hundreds more could watch the proceedings. As one gun owner after another spoke, many with weapons on their hips, chants of “USA” carried into the chamber from outside.

“I’ve never seen a crowd as large,” said John Moss, an 18-year veteran of the council.

“Our facilities were literally overwhelmed,” Mayor Bobby Dyer (R) added.

Since the midterm election, similar crowds have descended on city and county council hearings from Tazewell to Fairfax. Led by VCDL, they have demanded that local officials refuse to enforce any new gun restrictions and declare themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries.”

Rural Republican-leaning counties from the central Piedmont region to the Appalachian Southwest have approved sanctuary resolutions that defy Richmond to restrict their guns. Some liberal-leaning localities have also passed watered-down resolutions supporting the Second Amendment.

In Suffolk, which Trump lost by 12 percent, the City Council passed a resolution calling itself a “constitutional city.” Nearby Portsmouth, where Hillary Clinton received more than twice Trump’s tally, followed suit. One council member voted for it with an assault-style rifle across his chest.

But in Virginia Beach, where the council meets next to the building where the massacre occurred, some felt the Second Amendment conversation was offensive.

“It was like an armed mob had descended on our city council,” Galindez, the Moms Demand Action activist, said of the Dec. 3 hearing. “It was a scene of chaos.”

For Vincent Smith, the night was the culmination of years of work. Smith, who works for the city, launched a petition in 2016 urging the council to overturn the policy preventing employees from carrying weapons to work. But it garnered only a few hundred signatures.

After Craddock opened fire in Smith’s building on May 31, however, the signatures began to climb. And since Democrats won a majority of seats in Richmond, the number has soared to more than 5,500.

Dyer, a genial physical therapist who asks people to call him “Bobby D,” said he couldn’t ignore the outpouring of civic activism. But he also felt like the sanctuary city language went too far. So he scheduled a special hearing for Jan. 6 and introduced a “constitutional city” resolution instead.

The mayor said he was trying to strike a compromise, though he faced an immediate backlash from council members.

“How does this resolution, which holds no weight but yet is serving to divide our community that’s in the midst of healing — help me understand — how does this help?” Rouse asked.

Many gun-control activists were too intimidated to attend the hearing on the resolution.

“It’s not a civil debate when people show up armed to discuss matters of public safety,” Galindez said.

After scores of speeches from gun rights advocates, the council passed the resolution 6 to 4. When one dissenting council member introduced a resolution the next night supporting a state bill that would allow gun-free zones, she received an email calling her an “enemy of America.” Hundreds of gun owners came out again to denounce it.

Among them was Thomas Colson, a hulking Navy veteran who works for the city and had survived the mass shooting. Fighting tears, he described hiding in an office as gunshots drew closer, texting his former partner to pick up their daughter because he wasn’t sure he’d live.

“Over and over we see evil people doing evil things,” he told the council. “Good people become the victims, though we can change that. We have to stop creating these gun-free zones.”

Colson said he could have stopped Craddock that day if the city had allowed him to carry his pistol.

“I had three opportunities that I know I could have taken care of him without any collateral damage,” he said. “Now I’m scared. I’m scared every time I hear a knock at the door. Every time I see someone walk by the window, I jump. I’m scared to do my job.”

The resolution supporting gun-free zones was withdrawn.

But another survivor said she wasn’t sure if arming employees was the answer. The employee, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was too afraid to be identified, said she used to take her family to the gun range. Now her pulse quickens when she sees a firearm.

“I’m afraid of them now,” she said. “I don’t even want to hold one now. What if I accidentally shoot somebody?”

'Rumors are flying'

“How many of you guys are going to Lobby Day?” Mooney asked the gun owners at the Freedom Shooting Center meeting Friday night. Almost everyone in the room raised their hand. Half stayed up when the Navy veteran asked if it was their first time.

“Obviously, this Lobby Day is going to be a little different,” he said to laughter, “because we might have 100,000 show up instead of 1,000.”

A day earlier, the Virginia Senate had passed three bills that would require background checks on all firearms purchases, let localities ban weapons from certain events and government buildings, and cap handgun purchases at one per month. A “red flag” bill allowing law enforcement to temporarily remove guns from individuals deemed a risk to themselves or others had passed out of committee but was not voted on.

The state was trying to turn ordinary gun owners into criminals, Mooney warned.

“As you have seen from the bills written, they will try and turn everyone in this room into a felon overnight if possible,” he said.

Mark Ashley agreed. He had joined VCDL, he said, after the election when it became clear that Democrats were pursuing gun control. He knew the mass shooting had shaken his city.

“Lots of people lost family members or friends,” he said, “but just because that happens doesn’t mean you can take away somebody’s rights.”

Ashley said he thought most of the bills were unconstitutional but would obey the law, “whatever they decide.”

Others said they would refuse.

“I will not comply,” said one man who refused to give his name.

While most of those at the meeting said they would leave their guns at home Monday, some vowed to go armed, even if that meant they couldn’t enter the Capitol grounds.

“I don’t feel safe going without a means to defend myself,” said a 37-year-old from Chesapeake who spoke on the condition of anonymity. As he described his plan to stand outside the security fence with his Glock 19 on his hip, a stranger came up and gave him a fist-bump.

“I’m going to hang with you,” he said. “If you’re carrying, I’m carrying, too.”

Conspiracy theories were circulating about what would happen at the rally.

“Is there any truth that Governor Northam has hired people to start trouble?” one man asked.

“Bloomberg!” several people shouted.

“Rumors are flying,” answered Mooney, warning that if VCDL didn’t confirm the information, “don’t trust it.”

He told the crowd not to engage with “agitators” or even members of Moms Demand Action. When a woman asked what to do if “chaos breaks out,” Mooney told her to “follow law enforcement’s advice.”

In the back of the room, Robert Mentzer said he hoped Monday would be peaceful.

“I’m not looking to start anything,” said the former salesman, who is now on disability. “I’m too old and too fat.”

He was still undecided whether to take his gun.

Read more: