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Opinion Virginia officials must show they learned the lessons from Charlottesville

Gun-rights supporters hold weapons outside an office building at the Virginia Capitol in July, during a special session on guns.
Gun-rights supporters hold weapons outside an office building at the Virginia Capitol in July, during a special session on guns. (Steve Helber/AP)

An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly stated that by conservative estimates, a minimum of 50,000 individuals might attend a rally on Jan. 20 in Richmond. The correct number is 5,000. This version has been updated.

THE VIOLENCE that racked Charlottesville in 2017 was triggered by a noxious crew of racist white nationalists and neo-Nazi thugs, but the incompetence and inexcusable passivity of state and local law enforcement allowed events there to spin into mayhem. Now, as a similar array of extremists are poised to join conventional gun-rights advocates in Richmond this month to protest proposed firearms legislation, Virginia authorities must take care to apply lessons learned from the chaos in Charlottesville.

By the most conservative estimates, the crowds expected to converge on the Virginia state Capitol grounds on Jan. 20, projected at a minimum of 5,000, would be several times larger than those that paralyzed and convulsed Charlottesville in August 2017. State, city and Capitol police forces have begun intensive planning for the event. There are plenty of unknowns but one thing is certain: Many or most of the protesters, including or especially those espousing hateful and unhinged ideas, will be heavily armed, including with assault-style weapons.

State legislators, many of whom have felt intimidated in previous years when heavily armed activists barged into their offices to lobby against gun-control bills, are not taking matters lightly. Democrats, in control of both houses of the state legislature for the first time in more than two decades, may ban guns from the Capitol, where the chambers of the state Senate and House of Delegates are located, as well as the office building where all 140 lawmakers have offices.

However, they are powerless to keep weapons from the 14 acres of the handsomely landscaped Capitol grounds, which are easily accessible from adjoining city streets. That’s where the protesters, along with antifa and perhaps other counterprotesters, are expected to converge.

They are entitled to exercise their constitutional rights. They must not be allowed to brawl and use their weapons as they did in Charlottesville. This time, the authorities say they are ready. The key will be acting on the already abundant available intelligence along with coordination, collaboration and communication among the various police agencies.

That was almost completely absent in Charlottesville, where city and state police had no common radio channel; were not briefed together; and failed to separate the rival protesters. When, predictably, things went disastrously wrong, the uniformed forces stood aside and watched the violence.

This time, in the face of attempted intimidation, the right response from lawmakers is to enact sensible and widely popular gun-safety measures that Republicans were able to spike when they controlled the General Assembly. They include universal background checks for gun buyers and so-called red-flag rules that enable law enforcement to confiscate weapons from individuals deemed by a judge to pose a threat to themselves or others. Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam has also proposed sound bills to ban the sale of certain assault weapons, large-capacity magazines and devices such as bump stocks that allow guns made for civilian use to fire at military combat-style rates. Those steps, plus reinstating the state’s one-a-month limit on handgun purchases, would make Virginia a safer place for all.

Read more:

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Jonathan Capehart: Action on gun violence depends on Trump: Be very afraid

Paul Waldman: Democrats have lots of gun proposals. Why aren’t we talking about the most important one?