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Weapons, flags, no violence: Massive pro-gun rally in Virginia capital

Thousands of gun rights advocates gather before a rally near the Virginia Capitol in Richmond. There was also a large police presence, with officials citing intelligence about threats. (Julia Rendleman/For The Washington Post)

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 Gov. Ralph Northam had temporarily banned weapons, and cheered fiery speeches about the Second Amendment.

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

This was the aftershock of last fall’s elections, when 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 Monday. They were joined by self-styled patriots from all over the country, whipped into a near-frenzy by social media calls — including from President Trump — to make Virginia the bulwark against any retreat on gun rights.

Intelligence from law enforcement about outside threats had put Virginia officials on edge and led to a massive police presence. The crackdown also made Northam (D) a symbol of the country’s cultural and political divide — as evidenced by harsh signs Monday depicting him as a “tyrant,” “radical Ralph” and photoshopped into a Nazi uniform.

“Democrats in the state are demonstrating . . . unadulterated power without authority,” Erich Pratt, senior vice president of Gun Owners of America, thundered in Capitol Square. “No one listening to my voice should ever . . . vote for the party of gun control, the party of Nancy Pelosi, Charles Schumer,” he said, interrupted by boos at the names of the Democratic leaders.

Inside the white-columned Capitol, the halls were strangely quiet as lawmakers went about their business. Young pages had the day off for safety; there was a skeleton staff but a beefed-up police presence.

Democrats who had met with pro-gun lobbyists Monday morning said they, too, were responding to thousands of fired-up constituents — the voters who put them into office on the promise of stricter gun laws. “You will see sensible gun-violence-prevention legislation pass this year,” Del. Alfonso H. Lopez (D-Arlington) said before heading into a party caucus.

Police said about 6,000 people passed through the checkpoint into Capitol Square. But estimates differed on the size of the larger crowd that remained on the streets. Public safety officials said there were about 16,000 people, based on how many blocks of street and sidewalk were filled, while rally organizers said they believed there were twice that many.

Authorities reported no major incidents and only a single arrest — of a 21-year-old woman charged with wearing a mask in public — despite the presence of numerous out-of-state militia and extremist groups that had threatened violence online and in social media.

“Intel proving correct,” Virginia’s secretary of public safety and homeland security, Brian Moran, said in a text message during the rally. “Big crowd, several militia members. Peaceful protest so far and hopefully all day.”

See more images and video from the gun rights rally in Richmond

One man was turned away at the metal detectors for having screws in his pockets. A pink smoke bomb went off near the entrance to Capitol Square, but police were unable to find out who detonated it. Officers did remove a homemade guillotine that had been set up on the street, inscribed with the words: “The penalty for treason is death.”

Northam praised law enforcement and said he was thankful there was no violence. “Today showed that when people disagree, they can do so peacefully,” he said in a written statement. “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.”

Militia members began arriving from other states the night before the rally, with more than 100 gathering for dinner and prayers in a remote part of Henrico County. Vehicles in the parking lot bore license plates from Texas, Oklahoma, Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Connecticut, New Jersey and more.

On Monday, before full light, thousands of people were converging on the Capitol, bundled against temperatures that didn’t get above freezing until afternoon. By midmorning, the streets were packed like Times Square on New Year’s Eve. A militia’s fife-and-drum corps mixed with the sounds of police helicopters whirring overhead.

On Ninth Street, the sea of gun-toting, camouflage-wearing humanity was too thick to move. A group of burly men formed a chain, each holding the backpack of the one in front, to try to make headway down the hill. Flags sprouted like flares — American flags, Gadsden (“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.

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 scarf and dark glasses.

Another man carried a gigantic .50-caliber Barrett M82A1 rifle, probably five feet long, and wore a helmet and body armor.

“This sends a strong visual message,” said Brandon Lewis, patting the rifle. He had driven from Bergen, N.Y., where he owns a shooting range. The message, he said: “The government is not above us. They are us.”

Elsewhere in the crowd, Justin Burns, 19, and his friend Spencer George, 30, flaunted their own arsenals: Assault-style rifles rested on their chests, bullets visible in the magazines. More ammunition was tucked into their bulletproof vests.

George, a welder from Ohio, said he gave Burns a ride from West Virginia — a total of 10 hours to get to the rally. He added that it felt “awesome” to see so many gun-toting gun rights activists gathered in one place.

Petula Dvorak: Gun rights rally was about fear, not freedom

There were almost no signs of counterprotesters. In a rare clash, a man who said he was a shooting survivor confronted a teen carrying an oversize long gun. “Why do you need to have that gun?” the man demanded. A small contingent watched the two argue; they eventually shook hands and walked off peacefully.

Much of the crowd’s ire was focused on Northam, who vowed to pass gun control after a shooter killed 12 people at a Virginia Beach municipal building last year. He has touted measures such as universal background checks, a limit on handgun purchases of one per month and a “red flag” law allowing authorities to temporarily seize weapons from those deemed a threat. Democrats seem to be backing away from plans to ban assault weapons.

“Sign here to recall Radical Ralph,” called out Chris Anders, 48, of Loudoun County, who was gathering signatures for Northam’s removal on behalf of a group called Virginia Constitutional Conservatives. “People are tired of someone trying to roll over them,” he said.

He was suddenly drowned out by cheers. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was nearby, shouting angrily. “If you try to take our firearms it’s another 1776!” Jones roared, calling Northam a “piece of trash.”

“Okay, I’m not saying that,” Anders said. “Threats are hurtful to the cause. I believe in political efforts.”

Down the hill and across the street from the Capitol, long lines formed outside entrances to legislative offices in 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 who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination. Trump hats, signs and shirts were popular throughout the crowd.

The people in line were waiting to lobby their legislators, as Virginians do every year on Lobby Day. Almost all wore orange “Guns Save Lives” stickers.

The Styslinger family of Virginia Beach got onto an elevator to find their state senator, Republican Jen A. Kiggans.

“We’ve seen the damage firsthand of not being able to defend yourself,” said Bill Styslinger, 51. He and his wife were both trauma nurses who had worked on victims of last year’s mass shooting. They had brought their 12-year-old son, Mason, to Richmond to see what it was like to lobby a legislator.

“Do you want to have your constitutional rights when you get older?” Styslinger asked his son, who was nervous about the whole affair.

“Yes, I do,” Mason said.

“How do you feel when Mommy and Daddy carry their guns?” asked his mother, Barb.

“Safer,” Mason said.

On the streets, people had access to rows and rows of portable toilets, provided courtesy of the Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL), chief organizer of the rally. Those inside the “pen” that police had set up on Capitol Square were not so lucky. No guns, and no toilets either.

The program of speakers took about an hour and featured lawmakers and conservative activists, including Stephen Willeford, who shot and wounded a mass shooter at a church in Sutherland Springs, Tex., in 2017.

“We must be vigilant, we must be united, and we cannot stand by,” he said of the prospect of gun control. “The world is watching right now what we will do. . . . Our backs are against the wall. We will not comply.”

Afterward, no one was happier than Philip Van Cleave, head of the VCDL. “It was perfect,” he said in an interview. “This was what we wanted — something totally peaceful to tell the General Assembly to stay away from gun control.”

Petula Dvorak: Gun rights rally was about fear, not freedom

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