When he called the state Department of General Services to arrange a Jan. 18 permit for a rally on Capitol Square, Van Cleave said he was told the only time slots available were 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Everything else had been booked by groups advocating for gun control.
“This was a thinly veiled effort to lock us out,” Van Cleave said in an interview. His organization sponsored the gathering that drew thousands of armed gun rights advocates to Richmond on Jan. 20 on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a traditional day of citizen lobbying at the General Assembly.
State officials strongly denied the accusation. “DGS does not base any permitting decisions on content or the applicant, ever,” spokeswoman Dena Potter said. “We issue permits in the order in which the applications are received.”
The debate might be academic anyway because state restrictions to prevent the spread of coronavirus currently limit public gatherings to 25 people.
“We have no way of knowing what guidance will be in place in mid-January,” Potter said.
Lori Haas of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, one of the groups that sought a permit for a demonstration that day, said there was no coordinated effort to block out van Cleave.
“There’s nothing nefarious, nothing underhanded, nothing untoward that I know of that took place,” Haas said. Her group had been scheduled to hold an event on Capitol Square last January — as they have every year for more than two decades — but canceled once the pro-gun rally drew national attention.
In calling state officials to cancel, Haas said, she simply asked to grab a spot next year instead. Then she told other groups what she had done, and they followed suit.
The MLK holiday has long been known in Richmond as Lobby Day, a chance for advocacy groups to bring ordinary citizens to the Capitol to buttonhole lawmakers on issues of interest.
Over the years, the Virginia Citizens Defense League has come to dominate the day, staging a gun rights rally by the old bell tower on Capitol Square and leading teams of supporters — usually wearing orange “Guns save lives” stickers — to legislative offices.
A year ago, Democrats won control of the General Assembly on promises to enact gun control — an issue highlighted by a mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building in May 2019 that left 12 people dead.
The prospect of new laws prompted gun rights advocates, egged on by tweets from President Trump, to converge on Richmond in January from all over the country in record numbers. The rally filled downtown Richmond with armed groups, and police were on high alert because several lawmakers had received threats of violence.
The day passed without incident. By the end of the legislative session, Democratic majorities in the state Senate and House of Delegates had enacted a slate of gun-related legislation, including limiting handgun purchases to one per month and imposing universal background checks.
All were signed into law by Gov. Ralph Northam (D).
Gun control has a much lower profile heading into next year’s session, which is sure to be dominated by the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. But Van Cleave said his group wants to keep up the pressure.
“I think [Democrats] were embarrassed by the turnout” at January’s gun rally, he said. “They wanted to show strong support for gun control in Virginia, and that’s not what they got.”
So now the Virginia Citizens Defense League will follow the model of “Trump trains,” he said — convoys of vehicles that paraded through towns ahead of the presidential election.
“All of them will be decked out with flags and magnet signs. We’ll probably have buses leading the caravan,” he said.
This approach carries a few advantages, he said: It doesn’t require a permit, and people can keep warm and dry in their vehicles.
“And it doesn’t mean you can’t get out and walk around Richmond while you’re there,” he said — adding that the demonstrators can also carry weapons to show their support.