RICHMOND, UNITED STATES – Hundreds of gun rights supporters began massing outside the Virginia state capitol on Monday (Jan 20) for a rally under heavy surveillance and a state of emergency declared by authorities fearing violence by far-right groups.
Dressed in hunting jackets and caps, rally-goers were checked for weapons as they passed through tight security before entering a fenced off area of Richmond's Capitol Square for the so-called “Lobby Day” event.
Hundreds more gathered in the streets surrounding the Capitol building, a few bearing arms, which is permitted outside the designated rally area.
They carried US and Virginia state flags and a huge banner emblazoned with the image of an assault rifle and the legend: “Come and Take It.”
Brooks, a 24-year-old Richmond resident who would not give his full name, came with a group of friends, including one with an AR-15 assault rifle, “to support the Second Amendment.”
“It's our constitutional God-given right to arm ourselves. Having a gun is for peace of mind. It's a protection thing. I don't trust the government to keep me on a registration list. Scepticism is part of the American experience,” he told AFP.
The rally has been organised by the Virginia Citizens Defence League (VCDL), which opposes gun control laws proposed by state Democrats, who control the Virginia government.
The VCDL has condemned what it considers a breach of the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, which states that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”
The amendment has proved controversial over the years and has been subject to many different interpretations.
The Supreme Court has ruled that individuals have the right to keep firearms in their households, but left it to states to determine how the weapons could be transported.
President Donald Trump, a major ally of the pro-gun lobby, expressed his support for the protesters on Twitter on Friday.
“Your 2nd Amendment is under very serious attack in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia,” he wrote. “That's what happens when you vote for Democrats, they will take your guns away. Republicans will win Virginia in 2020. Thank you Dems!”
Richmond was a capital of the pro-slavery Confederacy, and Virginia has traditionally leaned conservative.
But the state, which borders the capital Washington, flipped in November and passed into Democratic hands. State Democrats promised to tackle what they considered the laxity surrounding firearms carrying laws, particularly after a May 2019 shooting in Virginia Beach that left 12 dead.
The new laws under consideration would prohibit magazines with more than 10 rounds, the purchase of more than one weapon per month, and permit judges to seize weapons from individuals deemed dangerous.
A draft ban on the sale of semi-automatic rifles, however, has been abandoned.
A backlash to the restrictions has spread throughout the state, and more than 100 counties and localities have declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries, threatening not to apply the new laws.
Security around the Capitol square has been increased, and authorities have arranged for extra police reinforcements to prevent any misconduct, as several far-right and paramilitary groups have said they would attend.
At the end of last week, the FBI arrested seven alleged members of the white extremist group “The Base” suspected of trying to create trouble at the rally.
Democratic Governor Ralph Northam on Wednesday declared a state of emergency for the rally site, which has been in effect since Friday and will continue through Tuesday evening.
Carrying firearms, normally allowed in the streets, is prohibited, as are dangerous objects such as baseball bats and chains.
“The VCDL (organisers) have intended this to be a peaceful event, but they have unleashed something much larger that they might not be able to control,” Northam said.
The governor said they have seen “credible and serious threats” of “violence, armed confrontation and assault on our Capitol (from) groups with action plans.” The groups include out-of-state militias and hate groups, he said.
“No one wants to see an incident like the one we saw in Charlottesville,” Northam said, referring to another Virginia city where clashes between white supremacists and anti-racist demonstrators in August 2017 resulted in one dead and dozens wounded.