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Gun rights demonstration Downtown attracts thousands, fear

George Copeland Jr. | 1/24/2020, 6 a.m.
Richmond was on high alert Monday, as thousands of people — many with high- powered weapons — flooded Downtown to ...
Thousands of demonstrators crowd Bank Street in Downtown, waving flags and signs during the Lobby Day rally by gun rights activists at the State Capitol on the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday. Photo by Sandra Sellars

Richmond was on high alert Monday, as thousands of people — many with high- powered weapons — flooded Downtown to show their support for gun rights in Virginia as the General Assembly considers gun control measures.

A crowd estimated by Capitol Police at 22,000 stood in and around a fenced-off Capitol Square to hear speakers from Virginia and as far away as Texas pump up the crowd with claims that Democrats in the Commonwealth are poised to confiscate their guns.

Men dressed in full military gear and carrying firearms stand in front of the state Supreme Court Building on 9th Street across from Capitol Square.

Men dressed in full military gear and carrying firearms stand in front of the state Supreme Court Building on 9th Street across from Capitol Square.

“This is what happens when you threaten the rights of Americans,” said Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League that organized the rally on the Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday, bringing parts of the city to a standstill, disrupting many plans for the annual Lobby Day and bringing the eyes of the world to the State Capitol.

People dressed in clothing ranging from everyday winter wear to full tactical gear carrying military-grade weaponry were joined by groups identified on social media as white supremacist and white nationalist groups, including The League of the South, Patriot Prayer and American Guard.

Antonia Okafor of Texas addresses the crowd inside Capitol Square, where guns were not allowed. She was the sole African-American speaker at the rally.

Antonia Okafor of Texas addresses the crowd inside Capitol Square, where guns were not allowed. She was the sole African-American speaker at the rally.

Roxanne Christley of Roanoke addresses the crowd outside the fencing on Capitol Square where thousands of people were able to openly carry weapons.

Roxanne Christley of Roanoke addresses the crowd outside the fencing on Capitol Square where thousands of people were able to openly carry weapons.

While Gov. Ralph S. Northam, citing intelligence reports of “credible threats,” issued a temporary ban on weapons in Capitol Square beginning last Friday, more than 16,000 people roamed outside the no-gun zone and openly carried firearms, including handguns, long rifles and assault-style weapons, including one with a grenade launcher attachment.

Speakers inside and outside Capitol Square participated in cheers and chants, with some people calling gun safety legislation unconstitutional.

“I’m not sure what part of ‘shall not be infringed’ they don’t understand, said Delegate John J. McGuire III, a Republican who represents parts of Henrico, Goochland and Spotsylvania counties and all of Louisa County, in talking about Second Amendment rights to keep and bear arms.

Culpeper County Sheriff Scott H. Jenkins declared his intention to deputize county residents if tough new gun laws are enacted.

A mass shooting in a Virginia Beach city office last May in which 12 people were fatally shot and four others were wounded prompted a wider public push to strengthen gun laws in the state, with Democratic candidates and some Republicans running on that platform.

For the first time in more than 20 years, Democrats won control of the General Assembly in November’s elections, and are committed, along with Gov. Northam, a Democrat, to approve a range of gun safety laws.

Already the state Senate has advanced legislation requiring background checks before all gun purchases; limiting handgun purchases to one gun a month; and authorizing localities to ban guns from public buildings, parks and at and near public events.

A bill to enact a “red flag” law, which is still in committee, would prevent people deemed a threat to themselves or others from possessing firearms.

A Confederate flag is emblazoned on a sign carried by demonstrators at the gun rights rally.

A Confederate flag is emblazoned on a sign carried by demonstrators at the gun rights rally.

While the VCDL called for rally-goers to exercise restraint, the FBI arrest last week of six members of a white nationalist group, the Base, heightened concerns and sparked fears that Monday’s rally could become another violent and deadly rally like that of white supremacists and neo-Nazi groups in Charlottesville in August 2017.