Opponents of tougher gun laws chanted slogans, hoisted signs, and vowed to defend the Second Amendment at a rally in Richmond, Virginia, on Monday that many on both sides of the gun debate had feared would attract extremist violence.
Instead of that ugly scenario, the rally was orderly and peaceful, though passion was high. Authorities estimated the crowd, which skewed heavily white and male, at 22,000 — and as of late afternoon reported only a single arrest: A woman had violated a prohibition on being masked in public by covering her face with a bandana, and according to police resisted when she was asked to remove it.
Many expressed relief and satisfaction about the relative calm.
“It went really smoothly,” said Marc Borger, who had traveled from McLean, Virginia, and carried a “Guns Save Lives” sign. “I think it’s going to look great for our movement.”
Myke Reiser, a Richmond resident and friend of Borger, said he was “absolutely thrilled.”
“I’m really glad the extremists were not able to co-opt this,” said Reiser, who carried a sign that read, “Gun Bans Cause Mass Incarceration.”
The event was not without a fringe presence, however, especially on the streets outside the designated rally area, where protesters were allowed to openly carry guns. Heavily armed men in the hundreds strolled in battle gear. Skull face masks could be seen here and there, as well as patches identifying wearers as belonging to known white nationalist hate groups, according to reporters on the ground who cover extremism.
Infamous conspiracy theorist Alex Jones was on the scene drawing cheers with dire warnings of doom. A man held aloft a sign for a “church” whose leader has come under federal scrutiny for effectively peddling bleach as a medical cure. Trump 2020 regalia was in abundance.
Anger began to bubble on the right during last year’s Virginia elections when Democratic candidates promised stricter gun laws. In November, when Democrats won unified control of state government for the first time in a generation, it put them in position to make good on their pledge.
Before their majority officially took over this month, local governments around the state vowed not to enforce new gun restrictions, declaring themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries. But Democrats have not backed down, and several of their proposals, which polls show have the support of most Virginians, are advancing through the state’s General Assembly on their way to becoming law.
In the lead up to the rally, politicians on the right and left, as well as leaders on opposing sides of the gun debate, expressed concern about possible violence. Many feared a repeat of the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, where a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd, killing counterprotester Heather Heyer.
On January 15, Democratic Governor Ralph Northam, citing “credible intelligence” of potential violence, declared a state of emergency and temporarily banned guns and other weapons from public areas around Richmond’s Capitol building. Two gun groups quickly sought an injunction to overturn the ban, but the Virginia Supreme Court on January 17 upheld the order, finding that attorneys for the groups had provided insufficient information to determine whether an injunction was warranted.
On message boards, extremists were busy warning that Richmond would be the start of the “boogaloo,” a term for a race war-cum-civil war that is popular on the fringe right. Conspiracy theories about everything from the nature of Northam’s gun proposals to the likelihood of the rally being a liberal trap set for gun supporters and the far-right multiplied online. On January 17, GOP State Senator Amanda Chase posted on her official Facebook page and amplified the latter fear, warning that a “government plant” could provoke violence at the rally to justify a crackdown against attendees.
“We are being played by a well-oiled machine,” wrote Chase, who spoke at Monday’s rally, “these things have been in the works for many years.”
Anxiety grew when the FBI arrested three suspected neo-Nazis on January 16 who had reportedly discussed going to Richmond (two of whom had built a functioning machine gun). The next day, four more people linked to the same neo-Nazi group were arrested, though it was not clear whether they had planned to show up at the Richmond rally.
In advance of the rally, authorities fenced off Capitol Square, a public area around the Capitol building subject to Northam’s gun ban. A single entrance and exit was set up for rally-goers that opened at 7 a.m on Monday. As attendees began to trickle in, Keith Bowen of Lexington, Virginia, expressed the concern many shared.
“We’re just worried about the crazies coming out,” said Bowen, a member of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a primary player in the state’s sanctuary push. Bowen had this message for anybody wanting to cause trouble: “Stay the fuck away.”
In a statement issued January 18, Virginia House GOP leader Todd Gilbert said the same more gently: “Any group that comes to Richmond to spread white supremacist garbage, or any other form of hate, violence or civil unrest isn’t welcome here.”
The rally formally got underway at 11 a.m. and featured speakers dear to many in the gun rights community. They included Dick Heller, plaintiff in a landmark Supreme Court case that found the Second Amendment protected an individual right to gun ownership.
Several speakers took aim at Northam, who was labeled a tyrant and criminal. Some of the rhetoric was stridently anti-government, at least of the state and federal variety.
Culpeper County Sheriff Scott Jenkins promised once again that he would deputize thousands of residents to ensure their gun rights are protected and vowed that “we will not have our citizens disarmed.”
York County Sheriff J.D. “Danny” Diggs said, “The governor and the Democrats have trampled on our rights,” and blasted Northam’s gun ban, which expires on January 21. “Here we are like defenseless, caged animals,” Diggs said.
The rally ended at noon and attendees cleared the packed area calmly, many of them thanking officers from the various police agencies that had provided security.
On January 17, organizers cancelled a vigil to remember victims of gun violence that was set to take place after the pro-gun rally, citing a need to protect supporters and stave off confrontation. The vigil had been held for the last 27 years on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which is traditionally a day when Virginians lobby their government officials.