RICHMOND — There were boisterous rallies and quiet tete-a-tetes, live animals and biker leather, little stickers and big signs, and so many guns that police designated a special door for everyone entering the Capitol armed.
Lobby Day at the Virginia General Assembly drew thousands of Virginians, who descended upon Richmond on Monday as they do every year for a day devoted to amateur arm-twisting.
Professional lobbyists troll Richmond’s marble corridors every day of the General Assembly session. Monday was for those pushing causes without the benefit of a paycheck or expense account, a day when ordinary citizens could drop by offices without an appointment and expect to get an audience with a senator or delegate.
“History is made by those who show up, and you showed up,” Bob Sadtler, gun-show coordinator for the Virginia Citizens Defense League, told hundreds of gun-rights activists who rallied at the brick bell tower on Capitol Square. They wore stickers that read “Guns Save Lives” and “Freedom is not a Loophole.”
Two hours later, about 50 people gathered at the same spot to pay homage to the victims of gun violence. Many wore large yellow stickers reading “Background Checks Save Lives” or scarves in the maroon and orange of Virginia Tech, where 32 people were shot to death in 2007.
Passionate lobbying went on inside the Capitol, where the legislative session got underway last week. Inside the General Assembly Building, some groups had information booths, as if it were a trade show. The showstopper was the Virginia Living Museum, which had a live rabbit and great horned owl on display, along with skunk, raccoon and bear skins.
Terry “Rock” Moeslein, assistant education director at the private zoo, planetarium and observatory in Newport News, hoped the abbreviated menagerie would drum up state money .
“We’re hoping that someday . . . maybe we could get support from the state,” said Moeslein, who strolled the lobby of the General Assembly Building with the rabbit and invited people to pet it.
Citizens pushed for issues ranging from more mental-health funding to looser motorcycle laws. Sometimes the advocates rubbed elbows in unexpected ways. One woman who had come to fight a proposed ban on private gun sales wound up posing for a photo with Moeslein’s rabbit.
Whether they were advocating for conservative “family values” or gay rights and abortion access, there was agreement on one point: Lobby Day was the time to do it.
“I almost think if you aren’t here,” said Josh Horwitz, executive director for the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, “people will ask, ‘Where are you?’ ”
Strategies for buttonholing lawmakers varied. Horwitz said his members visited the offices of legislators friendly to their cause and those they thought could be persuaded.
“You always want to say hello to your friends, and then you go for the swings,’’ he said.
James Van Bavel, a Yorktown psychiatrist and gun-rights activist, sought out lawmakers who opposed him on the issue.
“It’s actually more fun to do, a little push-pull,” he said. “It’s exhilarating.”
Van Bavel thought he’d made some headway with a legislative aide to Del. Jeion A. Ward (D-Hampton).
“We worked on him for about 20 minutes, and you could just see — click-click-click, the gears,” Bavel said.
Jamaal Williams, the aide who met with Van Bavel, said the meeting did not produce a gun-rights epiphany. But he agreed that they had “a good dialogue.”
“I was able to honestly see his side,” Williams said.
On a day when the Capitol felt like a carnival, Van Bavel made an impression with his dress. He sported an old-fashioned gray suit he’d bought for his sister’s Victorian-themed wedding, complete with ascot, pocket watch and walking stick. He also wore a gun — not a period piece but a Walther PPS, which stands for “police pistol slim.”
“I thought about bringing a revolver, but it’s too bulky,” he said.
Guns are permitted in the state Capitol and other government buildings in Virginia as long as the person packing heat has a concealed weapons permit or is a state lawmaker or law enforcement official. Guns cannot be brought into the Senate gallery, although they are allowed in the House gallery.
The loose gun policy did not make for an easy time at Capitol doorways, where metal detectors have been in place since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Capitol police directed gun-bearers to their own door so officers could check permits before the holders entered.
“There are always big crowds,’’ said Del. Robert B. Bell (R-Charlottesville). “It’s a holiday for most people, and it’s an opportunity to come to visit. This is always one of our biggest days.”
In the House gallery, people from the conservative Family Foundation, which opposes abortion and promotes school choice, mixed with college students seeking lower tuition and members of the NAACP.
Del. Betsy Carr (D-Richmond) said she enjoyed the day, even though she found her office inundated by motorcycle owners opposed to police checkpoints that target them.
“It’s our government — people are making their statements, expressing themselves,” Carr said. “That’s the way it works.”