The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Virginia officials on edge as pro-gun caravans prepare to gather in Richmond on Monday

Thousands of people gathered at the Virginia Capitol in January 2020 for a gun-rights rally on Lobby Day. (Timothy C. Wright for The Washington Post)

RICHMOND — The pro-gun signs and flags had all been snapped up from the racks inside Green Top Hunting & Fishing on Friday afternoon. Around Virginia, buses were being plastered with banners and volunteers were gearing up to coordinate a potentially massive gun rights caravan to the state Capitol on Monday.

With the FBI warning of the potential for right-wing attacks in capitals around the country this weekend following the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol, officials are watching anxiously as armed demonstrators prepare to converge on Richmond.

“There is a lot of [online] chatter about Saturday and Sunday, but we’re primarily focused on Monday,” Virginia public safety secretary Brian Moran said Friday evening after briefing General Assembly staffers. “In terms of credible threats — we’re monitoring it.”

Fallout from the mob attack in Washington has prompted some of the state’s self-described militia groups to say they will stay away from Monday’s pro-gun demonstration. That day’s Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is also known in Richmond as Lobby Day for the tradition of citizens coming to petition legislators at the start of the General Assembly session.

“This year Halifax County Militia will protest the continuing disrespect and invasion of our rights, by our absence from Richmond,” Mitzi Thompson, who identifies herself as the leader of the Halifax group, said in a paid proclamation in a county newspaper.

Her statement went on to question the validity of the presidential election but condemned “the violent actions that have taken place this year across America and any attacks on law enforcement. We support our men in blue and the Rule of Law.”

In Virginia, gun control fight gives rise to movement for county-approved militias

Thompson said in an interview that militia groups in seven other counties, worried about being blamed for any violence that might break out in Richmond, had sent similar statements to local news and government organizations. Only one other could be reached: That group’s leader, Daniel Abbott, said members of the group, which is based in Campbell County, will stay away from Richmond on Monday.

Abbott couldn’t have gone anyway — he’s in the Virginia National Guard and is deployed to help secure the District.

“We don’t support, obviously, stuff like what took place here on the 6th,” he said from his posting in D.C. “And we consider there to be far too great a risk of something like that transpiring in Richmond, and we don’t want to be involved in anything like that. So we decided to keep our distance.”

The leader of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, the grass-roots gun rights organization that planned Monday’s event, said he has no idea how many people might show up.

“I wish I did,” said Philip Van Cleave.

He said he is working closely with law enforcement officials to ensure the event runs smoothly. “We have a hotline with key people in state police, Richmond police and Capitol police,” Van Cleave said. “If we get anything we think could be a problem, we’ll let them know.”

The pro-gun rally he organized around the state Capitol a year ago drew an estimated 20,000 people, including organized, militarylike squads and anti-government agitators from around the country. Despite reports of online threats and intimidation against Virginia Democrats, who were advancing landmark gun control legislation, there were no violent incidents.

This year, the group was beaten out for an event permit by gun control advocates, though state officials canceled those permits this week over the broader security concerns. With the onset of restrictions on public gatherings because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Citizens Defense League planned a vehicle caravan instead.

Convoys plan to assemble at all four compass points of the state — each led by a bus bearing shrink-wrapped banners — and then converge on Richmond, picking up additional supporters along the way. To avoid an epic traffic jam on city streets, Van Cleave said, the four caravans are expected to arrive at one-hour intervals, starting at noon.

There has been an internal dust-up over one of the buses, which was initially designed to bear the slogan: “Free men own guns. Slaves do not.”

Some of the group’s members recoiled at the mention of slavery after a year of Black Lives Matter protests. “It’s hilarious the way different people can take the same thing different ways,” Van Cleave said. “But, ah, you know, such is life nowadays. Everything is complicated.”

The slogan was changed to “#Rolling4The2A Guns SAVE Lives.”

The Citizens Defense League will operate a control center from a downtown Richmond hotel and has sought ham radio operators to help monitor the flow of vehicles around the state. Group members will live-stream the event, along with recorded videos from high-profile gun rights activists. Awards will go out to the vehicles with the showiest displays. One prize: ammunition. Another: a free subscription to a service that provides insurance and legal counseling “if you ever did have to get involved in a self-defense incident,” Van Cleave said.

Though Van Cleave promises the event will be “a lot of fun,” city and state officials are taking it seriously.

Members of the National Guard are on standby. Plywood covers the windows of the State Capitol. Tall metal barricades surround Capitol Square, with police vehicles idling on pathways just inside locked pedestrian gates. Downtown streets will be closed; signs warning against carrying guns have gone up around the city.

In Virginia and elsewhere, gun supporters prepare to defy new laws

“The violent, lawless insurrection and assault on democracy and its institutions that unfolded last week in Washington, D.C., will not be tolerated in the city of Richmond,” Mayor Levar Stoney warned on Thursday.

Speaking at a news briefing with Gov. Ralph Northam (D), Stoney pointed out that the city has both declared a state of emergency and passed ordinances that ban carrying firearms in public spaces during permitted events — or any organized event “that should be permitted.”

Van Cleave has encouraged his members to stay in their cars but said that nothing prohibits them from getting out and stretching their legs around Richmond. If they’re carrying firearms, he said, so be it.

A slate of gun control groups is using the prospect of armed demonstrators milling around town to tout a proposal to ban the open carrying of firearms in Virginia. One of the groups, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, will push the idea in a virtual event on Monday that Northam is scheduled to attend.

“We’ve seen armed intimidation at the Capitol for years,” Lori Haas, the coalition’s Virginia director, said Friday in an interview. “After the violent insurrection that happened last week — which would have been more deadly without D.C.’s strong gun laws, including a ban on open carry — it’s time that Virginia … ban open carry in public.”

Van Cleave dismissed any notion that his members pose a threat. For 25 years, he said, the Citizens Defense League has held rallies on Lobby Day in Richmond without any violence.

There are unknowns this year, he conceded. There’s unrest around the nation. “Now, could somebody try to sneak in and cause trouble? Of course. That could happen any time,” he said. “But at the end of the day, we can’t back down. We can’t stop every time somebody makes a threat. … We’re living in a crazy time, but life has to go on.”