RICHMOND, Va. - 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. Protestors 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.
This was the aftershock of last fall's elections, when thousands of 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 on 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 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 Lopez, D, said before heading into a party caucus.
Police said about 6,000 people had passed through the checkpoint into Capitol Square. But there were differing estimates on the size of the larger crowd that remained on the streets. Public safety officials said 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 Secretary of Public Safety Brian Moran said in a text message during the rally. "Big crowd, several militia members. Peaceful protest so far and hopefully all day."
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 mid-morning, 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.
There were almost no signs of counter-protesters. 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 gunman killed 12 people at a Virginia Beach municipal building last year. He has touted measures such as universal background checks, limiting handgun purchases to 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 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's a reference to the slur President Trump has used against the Massachusetts senator, 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 Virginiansdo 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 Kiggans.
"We've seen the damage firsthand of not being able to defend yourself," Bill Styslinger, 51, said. 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?" his mother, Barb, asked.
"Safer," Mason said.
On the streets, people had access to rows and rows of portable toilets, provided courtesy of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, 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, includingStephen Willeford, who shot and wounded a mass shooter at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, in 2018.
"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."
INDIANOLA, Iowa - The race for the Democratic nomination burst into a multifront flurry of attacks and counterattacks on Sunday, as the largely issue-driven contest veered personal just two weeks before the first vote.
The aggression came from multiple candidates on multiple fronts, with Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., and former Vice President Joe Biden sparring about Social Security while Sanders aides excoriated Biden for his record on race.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., criticized Mike Bloomberg for postponing the release of his financial disclosure statements, saying that the billionaire and former New York mayor is "trying to skip the democracy part of the election" and that voters won't know of potential financial entanglements until after Super Tuesday.
It is all unfolding in the midst of a confrontation between Sanders and Warren over gender and electability, which continued to play out Sunday, when Sanders said he believed gender is an obstacle for any female presidential candidate.
The pent-up feuds are unspooling at an unpredictable moment, with a quartet of candidates essentially tied in Iowa and trying to mobilize two of the most energized portions of the Democratic electorate: suburban women and black voters.
These dynamics are playing out in multiple early-voting states, including in Iowa, where some 60% of likely caucus-goers still undecided, and South Carolina, with its heavily black population and a Feb. 29 primary, in which polls show Biden out ahead.
"There's still such a large group of undecideds, and everyone's goal is to sway the undecideds into their camp," said Tameika Isaac Devine, the influential mayor pro tem of Columbia, South Carolina. "I don't think anybody would necessarily think it's desperation time yet, but there's a strong sense of urgency."
It's unclear how these aggressive attacks will play in a contest where candidates who launch negative attacks are often penalized in the polls.
One of the most fraught areas of debate has been over the role that gender should play as voters consider who would is best-positioned to defeat President Donald Trump. Warren has said Sanders told her in a private meeting in 2018 that a woman could not win, a charge that Sanders denied. After a heated exchange on the debate stage last week, in which he continued to contradict her account, Warren approached Sanders, didn't take his outstretched hand, and said, "I think you called me a liar on national TV."
Asked on Sunday if he thought gender was an obstacle for female candidates, Sanders replied, "The answer is yes."
"But I think everybody has their own sets of problems," he said in an interview with New Hampshire Public Radio. "I'm 78 years of age. That's a problem. . . . If you're looking at Buttigieg, he's a young guy, people will say, 'Well, he's too young to be president. You look at this one, she's a woman.' So everybody, you know, brings some negatives."
"I would just hope very much that the American people look at the totality of a candidate," he said. "Not at their gender, not at their sexuality, not at their age. But at everything. Nobody is perfect. There ain't no perfect candidate out there."
Warren declined to engage in any further debate on the subject. When asked in Des Moines whether being a woman is a political obstacle she said, "I have no further comment on this."
"I have been friends with Bernie for a long time," she said. "We work together on many, many issues. And that's all I'm going to say on this."
Compared with the 2016 Republican primary, when Trump mocked the appearance of his opponents and their wives and was ridiculedabout the size of his hands, this most recent Democratic contest has been mild. Much of the discussion so far has focused on health care policy, troop levels in the Middle East and immigration.
But underlying most of the debate of late is a question of how Trump would use his politics of personal destruction against the eventual nominee, and which Democrat is most equipped to handle that. Sanders has said Trump would launch sexist attacks that could prove effective against Warren. He has also said that Biden has too much "baggage" that the president could weaponize.
Biden, meanwhile, has said that the positions held by Sanders, a democratic socialist, would be used by Trump to defeat him as presidential nominee and could also hurt Democrats in down-ballot races.
Biden has grown increasingly agitated over the tone Sanders had taken with him recently, and had been simmering over a video his rival's campaign was pushing that suggested Biden wanted to cut Social Security.
In an indication that the attacks were resonating, a voter here on Saturday pressed Biden about his position. Biden initially hesitated to name Sanders, saying that his campaign advisers would probably urge him not to challenge his rival over a video that his campaign had been circulating online.
"It's simply a lie," Biden said of a video that showed him lauding Paul Ryan for wanting to cut Social Security. "This is a doctored tape. And I think it's beneath [Sanders]. And I'm looking for his campaign to come forward and disown it. But they haven't done it yet."
The video did not appear to have been "doctored" - which Biden twice claimed - but it had taken his comments out of context. Biden's campaign has said that he was mocking, not lauding, Ryan's position.
Still, there are other videos of Biden that show him expressing an openness to considering changes to entitlement programs.
When Biden was asked during his 2008 presidential campaign whether he would consider changing the cost-of-living increases or the age of eligibility for Medicare and Social Security, he said "absolutely."
"You have to," he said on NBC News' Meet the Press. "It's - one of the things that my, you know, the political advisers say to me is, 'Whoa, don't touch that third [rail]' - look, the American people aren't stupid. It's a real simple proposition. . . . You've got to put all of it on the table."
Sanders on Sunday acknowledged that the video one of his aides promoted should have shown fuller context of Biden's remarks, but he insisted Biden's record deserves to be scrutinized.
"I think anyone who looks at the vice president's record understands that time after time after time, Joe has talked about the need to cut Social Security," Sanders said in response to a question from The Washington Post as he left a radio interview in New Hampshire. "I don't think that that is disputable."
Asked to respond, Biden campaign spokesman Andrew Bates called Biden "a champion of Social Security" and pointed to legislative scorecards when Biden was a senator from Delaware. One group, the Alliance for Retired Americans, listed him as having a 96% lifetime score for issues that impact retirees in 2008, his last year as a senator.
Warren has been more subtle, not mentioning her campaign rivals directly. But over the weekend, she also emphasized her proposal to increase Social Security payments.
She was far more direct in criticizing Bloomberg, who has launched an unusual campaign that avoids the first four states and is instead premised on a fractured field in which his personal wealth can give him an advantage.
"We've got billionaires who think they can just buy an election," Warren said. "He's decided to skip the 'democracy' part of the election. He's not coming to places like Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada and meeting people. Instead, it's all going to be set up for his TV ads, running his TV ads, and making it work."
She also ridiculed him for having been granted an extension until March 20 to file federal forms required of all presidential candidates that would provide a picture of his personal finances.
"Think about this: If he has entanglements with China, serious conflicts of interest, business interests in other parts of the world or other corporations," she said, "when are we going to know about that? Not until after Super Tuesday. That is not how democracy is supposed to work, and we need to shut that down."
Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., have generally avoided squabbles even amid the escalating intensity among the other candidates.
"Now's the time for a closing argument," Buttigieg told reporters over the weekend in Harlan, Iowa. "Mine is going to be about not why I think I have the best policy, but why I'll be the right nominee to take on and defeat Donald Trump - and why I've focused on bringing together not just our party, but our country when the time comes."
The growing friction played out as the leading candidates descended on South Carolina for church services and speeches that will be delivered on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, part of a frenetic battle for the support of black voters.
Buttigieg spent Saturday scrambling to place the King holiday event on his schedule, and he faced some blunt criticism about why it wasn't on his calendar in the first place.
Nina Turner, a national co-chair of the Sanders campaign, has tried to poke holes in the argument that Biden is the best option for African Americans.
In an op-ed in the State newspaper in Columbia, Turner, who is black, excoriated Biden's legislative record, saying he'd buddied up to segregationist senators, worked with right-wing Republicans to pass legislation detrimental to black communities and spread the black-woman-welfare-queen stereotype.
"Will our community side with former Vice President Joe Biden, who has repeatedly betrayed black voters to side with Republican lawmakers and undermine our progress?' Turner wrote. "Or will we stand with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and a movement that has been fighting for racial and economic justice since the civil rights era?"
The op-ed sparked a backlash both from Biden supporters and from those who worry that intraparty stone-throwing gives Trump an easier path to reelection.
Bernice Scott, the influential former councilwoman from Richland County, South Carolina, who originally endorsed Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., then, after Harris' departure, Biden, defended the former vice president in her own editorial in the State. It was headlined "African Americans trust and support Joe Biden - and Bernie Sanders' dirty tactics won't change that"
"I'm disappointed to see that Sen. Bernie Sanders and his campaign have taken their eyes off the ball," Scott wrote. "Instead of taking the fight to President Donald Trump, they have turned to tearing down their own."
Later in the day, Sanders also returned to warmer words about Biden.
Asked why, if he disagreed so strongly with Biden's record on Social Security, the former vice president he was so popular with seniors, he paused.
"You know why? I'll tell you why. Because Joe is a nice guy. OK? He is a decent person. He's a friend of mine," Sanders said. "We're not going to make personal attacks on Joe Biden. But I think the records shows that Joe's history in the Senate and my record in Congress are very different."
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The Washington Post's Annie Linskey and Chelsea Janes contributed to this report.