Ahead of rally, Virginia Senate acts, gun-control activists report threats

By Brad Brooks

By Brad Brooks

Jan 17 (Reuters) - Virginia lawmakers took another step toward enacting tougher gun laws, and gun-control activists reported a growing number of online death threats ahead of Monday's rally by arms enthusiasts that authorities have sought to keep from becoming violent.

The Virginia Senate late on Thursday passed bills to require background checks on all firearms sales, limit handgun purchases to one a month, and restore local governments' right to ban weapons from public buildings and other venues.

Virginia, where Democrats promising stronger gun laws took control of the legislature, has become the focal point for the contentious American debate around the right to bear arms. Both Virginia houses are expected to pass the new laws.

Gun-rights activists assert the U.S. Constitution guarantees their right to possess any firearm. Opponents say more restrictive gun laws would help lessen the number of people killed by guns each year.

Militias, neo-Nazis and other groups have vowed to swarm the Capitol in Richmond. Supporters of the new gun laws said on Friday that despite a spike in online threats against them, they will not back down on their demands for tougher laws.

"These extremists are afraid their guns will be taken away - we're afraid our children will be taken away," said Shannon Watts, founder of the Moms Demand Action group that advocates tougher gun laws. "While the rally has grown in size and grown more extreme, what we will see Monday is a vocal minority."

Watts said that she, many members of her group and their families had been increasingly threatened online with death and rape, and Virginia members of her organization have had their home addresses and other personal information shared online, which they have reported to police.


'WE'LL NOT BACK DOWN'

Watts said some members of her group - which is part of Everytown, a 4-million-member organization funded by former New York mayor and presidential candidate Michael Bloomberg - would be on the ground at the rally. But she said the bulk of their efforts would go into working phone banks and keeping up pressure on Virginia legislators to pass the promised gun laws.

"We'll not be intimidated," Watts said on a conference call with journalists. "We'll not back down."

Philip Van Cleave, leader of the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL), organizers of the rally, has rejected any calls for violence while openly welcoming militias from across the United States to provide security for his group.

A spokesman for the Capitol Police said the group has worked closely with law enforcement officers on their rally plans. Van Cleave and other members of the group did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

On Thursday, the FBI arrested three members of a small neo-Nazi group who authorities said hoped to ignite a race war through violent acts at Monday's rally, reminiscent of a 2017 white supremacist rally in nearby Charlottesville.

Virginia Governor Ralph Northam on Wednesday declared a state of emergency banning any weapons around the grounds of the Capitol from Friday evening until Tuesday evening.

Northam is pushing a package of eight bills to toughen gun laws, and the lower house, the House of Delegates, is expected to consider them in a single package, with lawmakers waiting to let the dust settle after Monday's gun rally before going forward. The state legislature will be in session through the first week of March.

A lawsuit filed by gun rights groups that requested the ban be knocked down was rejected by a Richmond circuit court and is now before the state's Supreme Court. (Reporting by Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas; Editing by Howard Goller)