Virginia gun rally: Authorities gear up for unrest in Richmond

By Joel Gunter
BBC News, Richmond, Virginia

image captionPro-gun protesters gather in Richmond ahead of the rally

Pro-gun campaigners are gathering in the US city of Richmond for a rally that the Virginia authorities fear could turn violent.

State governor Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency ahead of the protest, banning firearms from the area around the Capitol building.

The Lobby Day rally is an annual event, but several gun-control bills passed in January by the Democrat-led Virginia legislature - in a state where gun rights have historically been permissive - have angered gun owners and activists.

The Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun rights group which organised the rally, said it expected as many as 50,000 people. Many of the buses laid on from neighbouring states were sold out before the weekend.

Various groups including armed militia, right-wing extremists and local Antifa, or anti-fascist movement, were expected to attend.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites.View original tweet on Twitter

Christian Yingling, who led the Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia during the violent clashes in Charlottesville in 2017, told the BBC he was hoping for a big turnout.

"I'd like to see a lot of people, I really would. I know from chatter online that a lot of militia types are coming in from some distance... Texas, Illinois, elsewhere," he said.

He said he hoped the rally would pass peacefully but feared it would not - "I think there's enormous potential for something to go wrong."

image copyrightJoel Gunter
image captionChristian Yingling of the Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia

Militia meeting

On Sunday night, at a rural community hall about 20 miles south of Richmond, dozens of people from different militia groups gathered to talk about tactics for the following day and about the broader threat to gun rights they saw in Virginia.

When Greg Trojan, one of the founders of the VCDL, asked how many people had travelled in from outside the state, more than half raised their hands. Many at the meeting said they hoped for a peaceful day. Some said they anticipated violence.

image copyrightJoel Gunter
image captionMilitia groups gathered for a meeting ahead of Monday's rally

"I'm dreading it. Because I was in Charlottesville, I was at the Boston free speech rally. I see what it can be and that's what I dread," said Tammy Lee, a militia organiser from Oklahoma. "There's a lot of angry people coming. There's a lot of uneducated people coming. It's going to be volatile. I pray I'm wrong, but I don't think so."

Democratic presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg was a frequent target for his spending on gun control efforts. So was the state governor Mr Northam - "Don't let the evil bastard win," said Mr Trojan, rounding off a speech to the room.

Cory Kepner, who travelled down from Pennsylvania, said he would go the rally, armed with his handgun, but hoped it would be peaceful. "I'm more of a thinker than a run into trouble type of guy," he said.

image copyrightJoel Gunter
image captionBullet shell casings in a jar at Sunday's militia meeting

President Donald Trump risked ratcheting up tensions when he tweeted on Saturday: "Your 2nd Amendment is under very serious attack in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia. That's what happens when you vote for Democrats, they will take your guns away."

The ban on guns around the Richmond Capitol building was challenged by gun rights groups but upheld by state Supreme Court over the weekend, and the organisers, the VCDL, called for "10,000 patriots" to hand their guns to someone else and enter the Capitol unarmed.

The Federal Aviation Administration issued temporary flight restrictions over the city, making it illegal to fly planes or drones.

What are the proposed gun laws?

Virginia's legislature, which the Democrats won control of in November, has approved three gun control bills. These would:

  • Prohibit the purchase of more than one handgun per month
  • Allow local governments to ban guns in parks and public buildings
  • Require background checks on all firearms purchases

Governor Northam, who has made gun control a top priority of his administration, said he hoped to pass all three measures.

The FBI announced last week it had arrested seven members of a neo-Nazi extremist group known as The Base, at least three of whom planned to travel to the rally on Monday.

The arrests underscored the extent to which the Lobby Day rally had been seized upon by far-right extremists. Some of those groups, including The Base, explicitly state their aim as inciting a race war in the US.

Megan Squires, an expert in online extremism from Elon University in North Carolina, said the open talk of inciting violence in extremist online chat groups had suddenly quietened down in the wake of the FBI arrests.

"In December, when this event was announced, those types of groups were very excited about this event - calling it the boogaloo and saying it was going to kick off the race war," she said. "But about 48 hours ago the tenor in those Telegram groups shifted considerably, and I think that's because of the seven arrests."

image copyrightReuters
image captionFencing surrounds the front of the Virginia State House in Richmond

The event has been compared to the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017, where a 32-year-old counter protester was killed by a rally goer and violent clashes broke out around the city between rally-goers and Antifa.

But the local Virginia Antifa chapter and other left-wing groups indicated they intended to march with the pro-gun protesters on Monday, rather than against them - seemingly reducing the likelihood of violent clashes.

The rally will take place on Martin Luther King Day - a public holiday in honour of the civil rights leader. In Richmond, police set up chain-link barriers around the Capitol in anticipation of the crowds and roads were closed off. Anyone attempting to enter the area around the Capitol will have to pass through a metal detector.

Mr Yingling said he thought the sheer number of firearms present would act as a deterrent to anyone minded to act violently. "When you have that many guns floating around, people tend to act respectful", he said.

More on this story