Virginia: thousands of armed protesters rally against gun control bills

Lois Beckett in Richmond
<span>Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Tens of thousands of gun rights activists, many of them armed, gathered in Virginia’s capital on Monday as the governor declared a state of emergency ahead of a protest against strict new gun control laws pledged by the state’s freshly elected Democratic majority government.

Chanting “We will not comply”, gun rights activists packed the street in front of the Virginia’s state house, where the governor, Ralph Northam, had temporarily banned anyone from carrying firearms. On the streets outside, though, some protesters carried rifles and wore full tactical gear. One protester estimated that as many as 70% of the crowd was armed, most of them more discreetly, with concealed handguns. Police estimated that 22,000 people attended the rally, most of them in the streets outside the state house, where guns were allowed.

Related: Pro-gun activists threaten to kill state lawmaker over bill they misunderstood

Virginia’s politicians had braced for potential violence at the state house, with some raising fears that the gun rights rally could turn violent, like the deadly 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.

Instead, Monday’s rally was crowded but calm, with members of militia groups and violent far-right groups such as the Proud Boys strolling the streets, but no counter-protesters in sight. In part because of the expected presence of thousands of Virginians who had no affiliation with hate groups, local anti-fascist activists had announced days before the rally that there would be no counter-protests.

One person was arrested, for wearing a mask in public, police said.

The single arrest raised questions, since many protesters in the streets outside the rally had worn masks.

“I was kind of scared it would keep the turnout low,” Jacob Taylor, 33, a Virginia resident, said, describing the conspiracy theories and fears of violence that had circulated before the event. He said he had turned out to the protest, his first ever political rally, because “I don’t want what I thought to be false rhetoric to keep people from coming”.

Taylor said that, as a gun owner, he had been motivated to come to the state capitol because some of the bills Democrats had talked about “would have directly affected what I can own and what I can do”.

For several hours, before an official rally organized by a state gun rights group began, protesters in the street in front of the capitol building chanted, sang the national anthem and took turns addressing the crowd through a megaphone.

Northam “lied and he said he knew there was imminent danger out here. But all I see is God-fearing, American-loving patriots out here,” one speaker, a contributor to Infowars said to cheers.

Wherever the “chickenshit governor is hiding, make sure he hears you right now”, he called. “USA! USA! USA!” the crowd chanted.

The large law enforcement presence at the rally was strikingly restrained, with no riot gear.

Guns rights supporters gather outside the state capitol in Richmond, Virginia, on 20 January.
Guns rights supporters gather outside the state capitol in Richmond, Virginia, on Monday. Photograph: Shawn Thew/EPA

The presence of thousands of armed citizens outside the elegant state capitol building was meant as a warning: Democrats, not just in Virginia but nationwide, should back off attempts to pass sweeping gun control laws.

Early in the morning, two men pushed through the packed crowd in bright red T-shirts that read “Make Politicians Afraid Again”, with the image of a military-style rifle underneath.

Conservative pundits were touting the non-violent gathering as evidence that law-abiding gun owners are not a threat to the publicdespite high numbers of daily shooting deaths.

Shannon Watts, the founder of gun control group Moms Demand Action, condemned the rally.

“Armed insurrectionists who threaten violence and lawlessness if they don’t get their way don’t represent the majority of Virginians,” she said.

An armed militia gathers in front of the Virginia state capitol building in Richmond, Virginia, on 20 January.
An armed militia gathers in front of the Virginia state capitol building in Richmond, Virginia, on Monday. Photograph: Stephanie Keith/Reuters

In Richmond, a city where nearly half of local residents are black, the gun rights protesters on Monday were overwhelmingly white and overwhelmingly male.

Among the thousands of demonstrators were some men in tactical gear, armed with military-style rifles. The conspiracy theorist Alex Jones had showed up with members of the far-right group the Proud Boys.

So did some members of anti-government militias.

Northam had declared a state of emergency last Wednesday, citing “threats of violence”, in an effort to avoid a repeat of violence that erupted at a 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, when a march by white nationalists led to the death of a counter-protester.

Local anti-fascist activists from Richmond and Charlottesville announced over the weekend that they would not be holding any counter-protests, citing safety concerns.

Donald Trump acknowledged and encouraged the rally on Twitter on Monday.

On Saturday, after a security briefing for lawmakers, Virginia’s Republican house minority leader put out a public statement condemning “any group that comes to Richmond to spread white supremacist garbage”.

“While we and our Democratic colleagues may have differences, we are all Virginians and we will stand united in opposition to any threats of violence or civil unrest from any quarter,” Todd Gilbert wrote.

Tensions in Virginia have run high since November 2019, when Democrats won control of the state government for the first time in 26 years and pledged to pass a package of gun control laws, from universal background checks to an extreme risk protection order law to a ban on military-style assault weapons.

Since then, pro-gun activists across Virginia have organized a vigorous grassroots movement to protest against the new bills.

The standoff in Virginia, where the National Rifle Association (NRA) is headquartered, has also prompted spiraling conspiracy theories and intense rhetoric from gun owners about tyranny and civil war.