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Tensions flared as activists carried semi-automatic weapons through the streets of Virginia‘s capital city during a major guns rights demonstration, calling for a repeal of newly-passed gun control measures – and four more years of Donald Trump.
The annual Lobby Day event attracts Virginians from all over the state, who spend the day “lobbying” for a range of causes just outside of the legislative capitol building, bringing colourful signs and a tangible energy that fill the streets of Richmond.
This year saw its biggest turnout of guns rights demonstrators in recent history, after Democrats – who took over both houses in the state legislature for the first time in nearly 25 years – successfully passed a series of bills establishing mandatory background checks and limiting the purchasing and carrying of firearms. Rather than a joyful day of activism, many feared the event would turn into a possible second Charlottesville, the deadly white supremacist rally in 2017. There have been no reports of a violent clash at Monday’s rally, however.
Still, protesters appeared ready for a battle, chanting “We will not comply!” and chiding Virginia governor Ralph Northam after he declared a state of emergency over the Lobby Day rallies, citing “credible intelligence from our law enforcement agencies of threats of violence surrounding the demonstration” in a statement. Militia members were seen wearing masks and carrying semi-automatic rifles during the protest.
The Virginia Citizens Defence League (VCDL), which organised the guns rights demonstrations, blamed the governor for the heightened anxiety ahead of the rally in an interview with The Independent.
“The governor has declared war on law-abiding gun owners,” said Philip Van Cleave, president of the VCDL. “We’re protecting our right for people to protect themselves.”
He also lambasted the billionaire 2020 hopeful Mike Bloomberg and the Democratic Party, adding: “We shouldn’t have to be protecting civil rights from either party, but the Democrats – because Bloomberg is paying them off – they’re all marching with money in their pockets to go against the constitution.”
Other demonstrators described the state of emergency as unnecessary, despite the FBI arresting three suspected neo-Nazis days before the event who had reportedly discussed opening fire at the demonstrations and were anticipating a possible race war to begin.
Thomas Speciale, one of the demonstrators attending the event, described the official designation as “BS”, adding: “There was no threat … It wasn’t a state [of] emergency, Northam created this emergency.”
The decision by Democrats to pass the relatively minor gun laws would have a resounding effect at the ballot box in 2020, said Mr Speciale, who is running for US Senate against the Virginia Democratic incumbent, Mark Warner.
“In November, ultimately what happened was we got complacent,” he said, referring to the Democratic takeover in 2018, as demonstrators carrying Glock handguns and other weapons stopped to cheer and listen. “But the best members of our team right now are the Democrats, because they continue to poke the bear. We could not have done this without them.”
Perhaps the hottest commodity at the event – besides the guns themselves – was merchandise and clothing supporting the president’s 2020 re-election campaign. One vendor who asked not to be identified said his table of Trump gear sold like “hot cakes” while noting the overlap of guns rights activists and supporters of the Republican president.
Mr Trump tweeted his support for the event as the demonstrations were underway, writing: “I will NEVER allow our great Second Amendment to go unprotected, not even a little bit!”
The Democrat Party in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia are working hard to take away your 2nd Amendment rights. This is just the beginning. Don’t let it happen, VOTE REPUBLICAN in 2020!
– Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump)
The president also said the new gun laws in Virginia were the result of the Democratic Party “working hard to take away your 2nd Amendment rights” in a tweet leading up to the rally, adding: “This is just the beginning. Don’t let it happen, VOTE REPUBLICAN in 2020!”
Josh Hawthorne, a demonstrator who attended the event on Monday, also suggested Republicans would show up in droves to vote out Democrats for implementing new gun laws.
“This has organised and brought people together,” he said. “If they continue trying to take away our guns, there’s going to be chaos.”
Gun control activists meanwhile called for calm during the event, and many said they stayed home to avoid a potential clash with the thousands of armed demonstrators convening outside of the capitol grounds on Martin Luther King Jr Day.
In a statement to The Independent, Amnesty International said Lobby Day was “creating a climate of fear”, adding: “The vile decision to hold such a rally on a day when our country recognises the life of Reverend Dr Martin Luther King Jr, a peaceful civil rights leader whose life ended in gun violence, is particularly troubling.”
But not all gun control activists stayed home. Thomas Freeman said he attended the event because “people are dying” and “it’s time to fix that”.
Holding a sign that read “gun laws save lives”, Mr Freeman said: “Traditionally on this day a lot of folks come to lobby, including guns rights activists, but they don’t feel safe.”
Mr Freeman, who is white, added: “Since I look like most people here, I feel it might be easier for me to come and represent the other side … we’re not trying to say ‘no guns,’ we’re trying to say that some gun laws might be helpful.”