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Elizabeth Szmurlo and Hunter Mitchell of Richmond, Va., gathered with gun-rights advocates at the State Capitol on Monday to oppose proposals for gun control.Credit…Alyssa Schukar for The New York Times
Thousands of advocates turned out to rally for gun rights.
Thousands of pro-gun advocates, many of them armed, converged on the Virginia State Capitol on Monday, flooding a secure area around the building and packing the surrounding streets with firearms, flags and political posters in a pointed message to state lawmakers who are weighing new gun control proposals.
The rally in Richmond, organized to oppose a series of measures being considered in the State Legislature, became a rallying cry for Second Amendment rights nationwide, inspiring cross-country flights from Colorado and road trips from Texas and attracting a crowd of about 22,000 people.
A threat of potential violence had been looming over Virginia’s capital city for days, fueled by reports that white supremacists, armed militia groups and other extremists planned to attend. But there were no official reports of skirmishes or major incidents as of Monday afternoon.
Hoping to head off trouble, the state set up a security perimeter around the Capitol grounds and banned weapons — including firearms — from the area inside. Police officers guarded the area with the help of bomb-sniffing dogs, and people entering the perimeter through the single entrance were screened with metal detectors.
The organizers of the rally, the Virginia Citizens Defense League, and other participants said they tried to keep the event peaceful.
Vincent Carter, 36, who was picking up trash at the end of the event, said that participants were well aware that “the world was watching” and that any violence would have been blamed on gun rights groups.
“A lot of time was spent in planning for safety — to not let a certain type of person sort of mingle in with us,” he said. “If we didn’t know them, we didn’t let them come with us. We have a lot of guys who are ex-military, so that helped keep things in order.”
Even so, plenty of demonstrators came armed to Richmond, and officials worried that confrontations could develop just outside the perimeter entrance or in the surrounding streets where weapons were allowed.
Despite dire warnings, ‘it was like a family gathering.’
During the rally, David Triebs and his two sons held a giant banner across the street from the perimeter entrance, reading “Come and Take It,” a reference to a defiant slogan used by Texan revolutionaries in 1835 when the Mexican authorities demanded the handover of a cannon.
Mr. Triebs and his sons drove for 24 hours straight through to Richmond from Fredericksburg, Texas, he said, drinking Red Bulls along the way to stay awake. He said relatives were worried about him coming to Virginia.
“The internet stuff I read made it sound like tanks were rolling in the streets and neo-Nazis were marching and antifa has descended,” he said. “But none of that stuff happened. It was like a family gathering.”
As they packed up their banner to leave after the rally, one of his sons struggled with two tall flagpoles, nearly knocking into a passing pedestrian.
“Careful — don’t hit anybody in the last five minutes,” Mr. Triebs said. “If you assault someone with a flagpole, that would be the only thing that made the news.”
Rally speakers included a plaintiff in a landmark gun-rights case.
The landmark 2008 Supreme Court decision holding that the Second Amendment protected an individual’s right to keep and bear arms is known as the Heller decision, after Dick Heller, the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit that overturned a gun-control law in the District of Columbia.
When Mr. Heller addressed the rally in Richmond on Monday, the crowd listened with rapt attention.
He got a big reaction when he quoted part of the amendment’s text: “Let’s yell it to them, so the media and left legislature can hear it: The right of the people to keep and bear arms will not be infringed!” The crowd roared the end of the sentence along with him.
And when he asked the crowd, “Do we need gun control in Virginia?,” the crowd roared back, “No!”
Another speaker, Sheriff Scott Jenkins of Culpeper County, Va., who has long been outspoken in advocating gun rights, told the crowd, “I ask that you all return to your homes and ask your elected officials, where is the line they will not cross?”
After the official speeches, as people began to leave the secure perimeter, participants made impromptu speeches in the street, denouncing abortion and the governor in addition to gun control. Some participants picked up litter and scraped discarded orange “Guns save lives” stickers off the pavement. “No confiscation! No registration!” the crowd chanted.
School shooting survivors held a small vigil hours later.
While armed men and women thronged the capital’s streets, gun-control advocates mostly stayed away. Organizers of an annual vigil in support of gun restrictions, which was scheduled for Monday, called it off this year.
Lori Hass, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence’s state director for Virginia, said in a news release that gun-rights activists “have amplified and fanned the flames of insurrectionism and civil war in a way that is irresponsible and dangerous.”
“Now, citizens who represent the overwhelming majority of Virginians are prevented from lobbying their officials because of credible threats to their safety,” Ms. Hass said.
But hours after the pro-gun rally ended, a crowd of about 30 gun control activists, many of them college students, went inside the Capitol grounds. Several of the students, including some who had survived school shootings, drove in from various locations in Virginia and slept at the office of a state legislator, Dan Helmer, on Sunday night.
The group had initially planned to hold a vigil earlier on Monday, but it moved the event to later in the afternoon after reports that white nationalists and militia members would attend the pro-gun rally. The advocates stayed in Mr. Helmer’s office throughout the morning.
“We heard them screaming from the office,” said Mollie Davis, 19, who survived a shooting at Great Mills High School in 2018. “That really scared me.”
Andrew Goddard, a gun control activist, asked the group to have a moment of silence for the thousands of people who have been killed by gun violence. “What would it be like if 10,000 of those people were standing with us and beside and behind us today?” Mr. Goddard said.
Though no incidents were reported at the gun rights rally on Monday, Mr. Goddard said it did not feel peaceful to see so many armed people marching in the streets. “Intimidation is not peaceful.”
He added, “They were looking for someone to scream at and shout at, and we weren’t going to provide that.”
Nupol Kiazolu, 19, the president of Black Lives Matter Greater New York, said she was compelled to attend the vigil for shooting victims “because oftentimes black and brown voices are left out of these issues.”
One gun-control advocate who did go to the rally on Monday morning to confront pro-gun demonstrators was Paul Karns, 49, a writer from Richmond. Mr. Karns said he had been dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder after he was shot 13 years ago while defending his neighbor during a robbery.
He got into a heated debate with a pro-gun demonstrator who said schools were vulnerable to violence because of the lack of guns on campus. Mr. Karns yelled and stormed off. “One thing I don’t see from that side of the spectrum is empathy for the rest of us,” he said.
A scandal that nearly took down the governor was prominent.
On a day when guns and Second Amendment grandeur took center stage, the atmosphere also took on an overtly political tone at times, as pro-gun groups criticized the state’s Democratic governor, Ralph Northam.
Demonstrators circulated a racist photograph from Mr. Northam’s medical school yearbook, which showed a man in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe, an image that nearly destroyed Mr. Northam’s political career. An investigation last year could not conclusively determine whether Mr. Northam appeared in the photo, and he now leads a state government that is fully controlled by Democrats and focused on enacting gun control.
“The man behind the sheet wants your guns,” read one poster, which had reprinted the photograph. In another case, a pamphlet using the photograph called on liberals and conservatives to “fight back” against “slave masters” in the state legislature.
Support for President Trump was apparent among many of the gun rights activists in attendance.
A large “Make America Great Again” flag whipped above the crowds that gathered outside the State Capitol perimeter. A bus adorned in pro-Trump posters, including a “Women for Trump” flag and a flag with the president’s head photoshopped on Rambo, occasionally drove passed the entrance of the capitol grounds and was greeted with cheers from the crowd.
“Trump 2020, baby!” one man shouted. “Amen,” a man wearing a camouflage hat replied.
No incidents or arrests were reported.
Despite concerns about potential violence, which led the governor to declare a state of emergency ahead of the rally, the authorities said they were not aware of any major incidents or arrests by late afternoon. The Richmond police estimated the crowd at about 22,000, with 6,000 inside the perimeter and 16,000 outside.
Organizers had said they expected 120,000 people to attend. The Virginia Citizens Defense League noted online that it had failed to meet its fund-raising goal. Its website indicated that some 1,200 people had given a total of $71,533 by late afternoon Monday, short of the target of $100,000.
“The real fight is yet to come,” the group said in a Facebook post. “Can you throw a few bucks our way? We are behind in our goal.”
Inside the Capitol grounds on Monday morning, a peaceful crowd held banners and flags, and shouts of “U.S.A.” swelled in the background.
At the same time, a swelling crowd jammed the surrounding streets.
Weapons were allowed outside the security perimeter, and demonstrators walked through the area carrying firearms and flags, as if on parade. There were military-style rifles, shotguns, 9-millimeter handguns, .45- and .22-caliber pistols, and even a man carrying .50-caliber sniper rifle.
Chris Dement, 22, said he brought a 9-millimeter carbine to stand in solidarity, but was prepared to use it for self-defense in case of violence.
“It’s never out of the realm of possibility,” he said.
Demonstrators came from as far away as Indiana and Texas.
Richmond was alive with activity as early as 6 a.m. as clusters of people made their way toward the Capitol. The traffic downtown included a Jeep flying an American flag, and numerous pickup trucks.
Logan Smith, 25, a transmission plant worker from Indianapolis, said he set out Saturday night and drove in his black Dodge Charger for 9 hours and 46 minutes to reach Richmond on Sunday. Standing in a teal sweatshirt in the early morning cold on Monday, his hands in his pockets, he watched the line for entrance to the Capitol grounds start to snake around the block.
“I see how it matters — it matters to me back home,” Mr. Smith said of gun rights. Referring to the gun regulations bills before the Virginia legislature, he said, “Seeing stuff like this being pushed, it doesn’t sit well.”
Around the corner, a whoop went up from a small crowd when several men unfurled a large cloth banner with a long gun emblazoned on the front.
Teri Horne, 51, stood on the sidewalk directly across from the entrance to the Capitol grounds, with a Smith & Wesson M&P15T rifle straddled around her shoulder and a Texas flag at her side. Ms. Horne, of Quitman, Texas, said she and about three dozen others from the women’s chapter of Open Carry Texas attended “to support the people in Virginia.”
“This is where freedom began, right here, and this is what they’re doing to the people of Virginia,” Ms. Horne said. “Thomas Jefferson, he was a very livid character, he would have some strong words to say.”
In online chats, extremists warned against attending.
The rally has been a frequent topic of discussion on internet platforms that are popular among anti-government militia groups and white supremacists. Many users expressed interest in attending the rally. But over the weekend, white-supremacist chat rooms began to overflow with warnings against attending.
Many suggested that participants were being set up for a government trap where they would either be blamed for any violence that broke out, or would even be the targets of violence themselves.
Those warnings continued on Monday from members of anti-government militias, white supremacists and others who were in Richmond. The message “Don’t go in the cage” was posted repeatedly on Twitter, along with comments like “Flood the rest of Richmond instead.”
Democrats in Virginia are pushing for gun control.
For years, Martin Luther King’s Birthday, which falls early in the legislative session, has been a day for ordinary Virginians and advocacy groups to talk with state legislators about issues that concern them, in a tradition known as “Lobby Day.”
This year, gun rights groups made especially big plans, after control of the legislature flipped in the November election.
After a generation of dominance by Republicans sympathetic to gun rights, the State Senate and House of Delegates are now run by Democrats who want to impose tighter regulations — measures that have become increasingly popular in the state, especially after a gunman fatally shot 12 people last May in Virginia Beach.
The State Senate approved three gun control bills last week that the House of Delegates could approve as early as this week.
The prospect of new laws restricting firearms has met with stiff opposition in the state’s rural areas. Since November, more than 100 municipalities have declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries” — a purely symbolic step, but one that highlights the widening rift in Virginia between its cities and its rural areas, which have been losing population and political power for years.
Timothy Williams, Sabrina Tavernise and Zolan Kanno-Youngs reported from Richmond, Va., and Sarah Mervosh from New York. Neil MacFarquhar contributed reporting from New York.
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