Virginia gun rally: Thousands converge on Richmond

Pro-gun rally in Virginia, 20 January 2020
Image captionA variety of firearms are on open display

Thousands of gun rights supporters are converging on the centre of the US city of Richmond to protest against tighter gun laws in the state of Virginia.

Many arrived in the state capital openly carrying an assortment of firearms including assault rifles.

Security is tight and a cordon is in force round the state legislature, where guns cannot be carried.

Virginia’s gun laws had been seen as permissive, but Democratic lawmakers passed restrictions in January.

This angered gun-rights activists, many making long trips from other US states to attend the rally.

The protest has raised fears of a repeat of the clashes seen in 2017 in the Virginia city of Charlottesville.

A woman was killed there when a neo-Nazi drove his car into a protest against a white nationalist rally.

What is security like in Richmond?

The organisers of the rally, the Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL), said they expected up to 50,000 people to attend.

Democratic Governor Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency, allowing him to ban guns from Capitol Square.

Queues could be seen at entrances to the “pen”. Police are using metal detectors to check for weapons.

But elsewhere in the city, many activists proudly displayed them.

Seven members of a neo-Nazi extremist group known as The Base, at least three of whom planned to travel to the rally on Monday, were arrested last week, the FBI announced.

Who is attending?

Armed militia members and right-wing extremists were expected at the rally. But the local Antifa, or anti-fascist movement, urged its followers not to go, citing safety issues, and said no counter-demonstration was planned.

Others attending include Stephen Willeford, who shot dead a gunman carrying out a mass shooting at a church in Texas in 2017.

Right-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones arrived in Richmond in an armoured vehicle.

Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones at a pro-gun demonstration in Richmond, Virginia 20 January 2020
Image captionRight-wing conspiracy theorist Alex Jones attends the event

Also scheduled to speak was local senator Amanda Chase, a Republican who wore a pistol on the senate floor.

What are Virginia’s gun laws?

The state allows the concealed carrying of handguns with a permit from the age of 21.

Open wearing of handguns is permitted from the age of 18 without a permit so long as the owner meets qualifying laws. There are some restrictions on assault weapons.

Virginia’s legislature, which the Democrats won control of in November, has approved three gun control bills. These would:

  • Prohibit the purchase of more than one handgun per month
  • Allow local governments to ban guns in parks and public buildings
  • Require background checks on all firearms purchases

Governor Northam, who has made gun control a top priority of his administration, said he hoped to pass all three measures.

Presentational grey line

Talking tactics

Militia groups are pictured at a meeting ahead of Monday's rally
Image captionMilitia groups gathered for a meeting ahead of Monday’s rally

At a rural community hall about 20 miles south of Richmond, dozens of people from different militia groups gathered on Sunday night to talk about tactics for the following day and about the broader threat to gun rights they see in Virginia.

When Greg Trojan, one of the founders of the VCDL, asked how many people had travelled in from outside the state, more than half raised their hands. Many at the meeting said they hoped for a peaceful day. Some said they anticipated violence.

“I’m dreading it. Because I was in Charlottesville, I was at the Boston free speech rally. I see what it can be and that’s what I dread,” said Tammy Lee, a militia organiser from Oklahoma.

“There’s a lot of angry people coming. There’s a lot of uneducated people coming. It’s going to be volatile. I pray I’m wrong, but I don’t think so.”

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