Monday is the state’s traditional citizen lobbying day, and gun-rights groups are organizing a large demonstration to oppose several far-reaching bills being advanced by the Virginia General Assembly’s new Democratic majority.
The rally has drawn interest from militias and extremist groups across the country, raising security concerns in Richmond.
Northam asked Wednesday that nonessential state employees not come to work Monday, a state holiday on which legislative staffers would normally be on duty since the legislature is in session.
The governor — flanked by Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney (D), state, Capitol and city police leaders, and state Secretary of Public Safety and Homeland Security Brian Moran — began his announcement by stating his belief in the right to debate, assemble and bear arms.
But he said authorities had “received credible intelligence,” some gathered via “dark web channels used by white nationalists outside Virginia,” about groups with “malicious plans” such as “storming our Capitol” and “weaponizing drones” over Capitol Square.
“This includes out-of state militias and hate groups from across the country,” Northam said. “They’re not coming to peacefully protest. They’re coming to intimidate and cause harm.” He said information circulating on the Internet is being “fueled by misinformation and conspiracy theories.”
The governor took pains to distinguish between the extremists he said were latching onto the planned rally and the law-abiding gun-rights activists who for years have “peacefully assembled” at the Capitol.
“Hundreds of Virginians do this every day,” he said, noting the crowd that flocked to the Capitol without incident earlier this week for a lobby day organized by the National Rifle Association. That event was held on the first business day after a Democratic-majority legislative committee banned weapons inside the Capitol and an adjacent legislative office building.
“No one wants another incident like the one we saw in Charlottesville in 2017,” said Northam, referring to the deadly violence that followed a “Unite the Right” rally that centered on opposition to removing a Confederate statue in the university town. “We will not allow mayhem and violence to happen here.”
House Republicans, who last week were sharply critical of the ban on guns inside the Capitol, had a more complicated reaction Wednesday. They called the threat of violence real, pinned any danger on outside “agitators,” heaped praise on law enforcement and took a swipe at Northam.
“While we fully expect this to be peaceful, there are legitimate concerns of a few bad actors hijacking the rally,” House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert (R-Shenandoah) said in a statement. “Law enforcement says those agitators are acting on their own volition and are not part of the busloads of Virginians visiting the Capitol. While we are grateful for the precautions taken by law enforcement, the Governor’s actions will unfortunately impede the ability of people to exercise not only their Second Amendment rights, but their First Amendment rights as well.”
Senate Minority Leader Thomas K. Norment Jr. (R-James City) and other GOP leaders issued a joint statement questioning Northam’s authority to impose the ban and saying that the restrictions for the Capitol and grounds “may be serving to heighten rather than assuage tensions.”
State Republican chairman Jack Wilson was particularly critical: “Northam and the rest of the Virginia Democrats have made their session goal crystal clear: a disarmed, vulnerable, and subservient citizenry,” he said.
Monday’s rally is being organized by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, one of many grass-roots groups that turn out every year for the citizen lobbying day. The organization expects a much larger crowd this year, with the legislature advancing measures that would require background checks on all firearms purchases, allow law enforcement to temporarily remove guns from individuals deemed a risk to themselves or others, let localities ban weapons from certain events and government buildings, and cap handgun purchases at one per month.
Gun control became a dominant issue in the 2019 elections in Virginia, following a deadly mass shooting in Virginia Beach and a decision by the then-GOP-controlled legislature to swiftly adjourn a special session Northam called in the aftermath to address gun legislation.
Northam called on the VCDL to “follow the NRA’s example and make your event peaceful. Please do not dishonor Virginia or your cause.”
The league’s rallies have not spawned violence in the past.
In recent weeks, VCDL President Philip Van Cleave has encouraged supporters to leave intimidating long guns — including assault-style rifles such as the AR-15 — at home. He has welcomed out-of-state militias but warned them not to get into confrontations with gun-control activists. And he has tried to keep other incendiary issues out of his event.
“This is not about [Confederate] flags, statues, history, etc. Just guns,” he wrote in a statement to supporters.
Asked what more VCDL can do, Northam said he wanted the group to keep pushing out that message.
Van Cleave said Wednesday that Northam is to blame if the event erupts into violence, accusing the governor of putting law-abiding rally participants at risk by forbidding them from bringing weapons.
“You’re saying there could be problems, and you want us to be disarmed, the good people?” he said. “The governor was the one who started all this. He’s the one who declared war on gun owners.”
Security has been unusually tight during the General Assembly session that kicked off last week. State Police have been out in force, providing backup for the Capitol Police, who normally patrol the square. Crews have been erecting steel crowd-control barricades around the manicured Capitol grounds in recent days.
The teenagers who normally work in the House and Senate as pages were given the day off Monday, the first business day after a joint House-Senate committee on Friday banned weapons from the Capitol and legislative office building.