Updated at 1:28 p.m. ET
The city of Richmond, Va., was under a state of emergency Monday as thousands of gun ownership enthusiasts and armed militia members gathered at the Virginia State Capitol for a rally aimed at quashing new gun restrictions. Gov. Ralph Northam has temporarily banned weapons from Capitol grounds, and some of Richmond’s streets have been barricaded to ensure the demonstration takes place peacefully.
The Richmond gun rally drew a wide range of people, from staunch believers that the Second Amendment guarantees wide access to guns to religious leaders calling for peace.
“This is about losing one of the base freedoms that we have. Without it, all the others fall right behind it,” gun rights supporter Todd McManus of Shepherdstown, W.Va., told member station VPM’s Ben Paviour.
The rally featured a slate of speeches before those gathered on the lawn below the white-columned Capitol. State politicians, an official from Gun Owners of America and law enforcement officials spoke to the crowd.
“At least two county sheriffs have spoken at this gun rights rally in Richmond,” NPR’s Sarah McCammon reports via Twitter. She adds that Sheriff Scott Jenkins of Culpeper County “says he will deputize ‘thousands’ of gun owners” if Virginia enacts new gun restrictions.
A recurring theme heard at the rally, McCammon says, is “the idea that activists must stop gun restrictions here in Virginia or they will spread across the country.”
Others slated to speak included Stephen Willeford, credited with stopping a mass shooting at a church in Texas, and Dick Heller, the defendant in the landmark Supreme Court case of District of Columbia v. Heller, which struck down the district’s ban on gun ownership.
While people were blocked from carrying weapons within a rectangle-shaped vicinity of the Capitol, many rally attendees walked with their guns in plain sight on Richmond’s nearby streets.
Some people wore camouflage and helmets, while a few dressed in Revolutionary War costumes. Others wore jeans or suits, but with rifles slung across their chests. And many people simply bundled up against the cold — it was several degrees below freezing in Richmond early Monday. In the streets near the Capitol, there were chants against Virginia’s Democratic governor as well as shouts of “USA! USA!”
Faith leaders held a prayer vigil for peace near the Capitol to invoke a spirit of fellowship on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
“We wanted to provide a counter-witness to potential strife, and certainly some of the conflicted relationship that’s going to be seen today,” Rev. Drew Willson tells VPM’s Roberto Roldan.
Right-wing media outlets were also a notable presence. Breitbart produced a livestream of video from the event, and InfoWars’ Alex Jones rode parade-style in a Terradyne armored vehicle, popping out of the top hatch to address the crowd through a microphone.
Vendors also descended on the city, setting up tables and portable racks to sell pro-Trump T-shirts and pro-gun paraphernalia.
The gun rights event, held on a holiday that honors a civil rights leader who himself became a victim of gun violence, has generated anxiety that it could draw white supremacists and violent extremists.
When Northam declared an emergency, he noted the possibility that some attendees might try to use the rally as an excuse to launch “insurrection” and violent attacks. A large counter-protest was called off, with several leaders saying the chance of violence was too high.
The FBI and other law enforcement agencies made high-profile arrests of suspected members of neo-Nazi group The Base in three states last week, including one group that allegedly had built a functioning assault rifle. Law enforcement officials told NPR that some of those members had discussed attending the gun rally in Richmond.
The Richmond rally is part of Lobby Day, a push against gun control laws that the Virginia Citizens Defense League organizes annually. But this year’s event gained new importance after a wave of Democrats took control of the state’s legislature — and promised to make gun control a priority. Lawmakers opened their legislative session on Jan. 8 and were in session Monday.
“Virginia Democrats are following through with an election-year pledge to pass new gun laws following a mass shooting in Virginia Beach last spring,” Whittney Evans of VPM reports from Richmond. “This has prompted a groundswell of grassroots activism from gun owners who say their constitutional rights are under attack.”
Northam and other law enforcement officials hope to avoid the deadly violence that flared up at another controversial rally in Virginia. Clashes between white nationalists who gathered for the 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville and anti-racism protesters left protester Heather Heyer dead and 19 others injured. Two state troopers also died when their helicopter crashed.
When Northam banned weapons from the Capitol area, he cited “credible intelligence” that tens of thousands of people were planning to converge on Richmond’s Capitol Square. Seeming to refer to The Base and other groups, Northam added, “a substantial number of these demonstrators are expected to come from outside the Commonwealth, may be armed, and have as their purpose not peaceful assembly but violence, rioting, and insurrection.”
The ban is broad, including not only pistols and rifles, but “sticks, torches, poles, bats, shields, helmets” along with pepper spray, laser pointers, drones, and “any item that can inflict bodily harm that is visible, other than firearms.”
Northam’s emergency order took effect at the start of the weekend and is to remain in effect until Tuesday afternoon.