RICHMOND, Va. — Tens of thousands of gun-rights activists from around the country rallied peacefully at the Virginia Capitol on Monday to protest plans by the state’s Democratic leadership to pass gun-control legislation — a move that has become a key flash point in the national debate over gun violence
The size of the crowd and the expected participation of white supremacists and fringe militia groups raised fears that the state could see a repeat of the violence that exploded in 2017 in Charlottesville. But the rally concluded uneventfully around noon, and the mood was largely festive, with rally-goers chanting “USA!” and waving signs denouncing Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam.
Many protesters chose not to enter the designated rally zone, where Northam had imposed a temporary weapons ban, and instead packed surrounding streets, many dressed in tactical gear and camouflage and carrying military-style rifles as they cheered on the speakers.
“I love this. This is like the Super Bowl for the Second Amendment right here,” said P.J. Hudson, a truck driver from Richmond who carried an AR-15 rifle just outside Capitol Square. He was one of the few African-American rally-goers in a crowd that was overwhelmingly white and male, and was frequently stopped and asked to pose for pictures wearing his “Black Guns Matter” sweatshirt.
An estimated 22,000 people attended, according to authorities, who said one woman was arrested on felony charge of wearing a mask in public.
The protesters came out despite the frigid temperature to send a message to legislators, they said.
“The government doesn’t run us, we run the government,” said Kem Regik, a 20-year-old private security officer from northern Virginia who brought a white flag with a picture of a rifle captioned, “Come and take it.”
Northam was a particular focus of the protesters’ wrath. One poster showed his face superimposed on Adolf Hitler’s body.
The governor said in a statement he was “thankful” the day passed peacefully and that “he will continue to listen to the voices” of Virginians while doing everything in his power “to keep our commonwealth safe.”
“The issues before us evoke strong emotions, and progress is often difficult,” Northam said.
Democratic lawmakers said the rally wouldn’t impact their plans to pass gun-control measures, including universal background checks and a one-handgun-purchase-a-month limit. Democrats say tightening Virginia’s gun laws will make communities safer and help prevent mass shootings like the one last year in Virginia Beach, where a dozen people were killed in a municipal building.
“I was prepared to see a whole lot more people show up than actually did and I think it’s an indication that a lot of this rhetoric is bluster, quite frankly,” said Del. Chris Hurst, a gun-control advocate whose TV journalist girlfriend was killed in an on-air shooting in 2015.
Some of the protesters waved flags with messages of support for President Donald Trump. Trump, in turn, tweeted support for their goals.
“The Democrat Party in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia are working hard to take away your 2nd Amendment rights,” he tweeted. “This is just the beginning. Don’t let it happen, VOTE REPUBLICAN in 2020!
The Virginia State Police, the Virginia Capitol Police and the Richmond Police had a heavy presence, with officers deploying on rooftops, patrolling in cars and on bicycles.
Authorities were looking to avoid a repeat of the violence that erupted in Charlottesville during one of the largest gatherings of white supremacists and other far-right groups in a decade. Attendees brawled with counterprotesters, and an avowed white supremacist drove his car into a crowd, killing a woman and injuring dozens more. Law enforcement officials faced scathing criticism for what both the white supremacist groups and anti-racism protesters said was a passive response.
On Monday, Southern Poverty Law Center staff members attended the rally and identified members of extremist militia groups, including the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters, as well as the League of the South, according to outreach director Lecia Brooks. The League of the South, which the center designates a hate group, advocates for Southern secession.
In contrast to Charlottesville, there was little sign of counterprotesters challenging the gun-rights activists.
Police limited access to Capitol Square to only one entrance, and a long line formed to get into the rally zone.
Gun-rights advocates also filled the hallways of the building that houses lawmakers’ offices. One couple, Jared and Marie March, traveled from Floyd County, over three hours west of Richmond, to meet with lawmakers.
“Guns are a way of life where we live,” said Marie March, who was concerned about a proposed red-flag law she said would allow citizens to be stripped of their guns due to “subjective criteria.” A proposal to establish universal background checks amounted to “more Big Brother,” she said. “We just feel like we need to push government back into their rightful spot.”
Monday’s rally was organized by an influential grassroots gun-rights group, the Virginia Citizens Defense League. The group holds a yearly rally at the Capitol, typically a low-key event with a few hundred gun enthusiasts listening to speeches from a handful of Republican lawmakers. But this year’s event was unprecedented. Second Amendment groups have identified the state as a rallying point for the fight against what they see as a national erosion of gun rights.
The push back against proposed new gun restrictions began immediately after Democrats won majorities in both the state Senate and House of Delegates in November, with much of the opposition focused on a proposed assault weapons ban. More than 100 localities have since passed measures declaring support for the Second Amendment.
Erich Pratt, senior vice president of Gun Owners of America, said voters need to replace the Democrats in control of the government in Virginia.
“We need to throw the bums out. We need to clean house in the next election,” he told the crowd.
House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert complimented the behavior of the rally-goers and said Democrats should take a lesson from them.
“The law-abiding gun owners in attendance today are the ones who would bear the brunt of their anti-gun proposals, which would have little to no impact on crime or criminals,” he said in a statement.
The rally coincided with the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, which is typically a chance for everyday citizens to use a day off work to lobby their legislators. However, the threat of violence largely kept other groups away from the Capitol, including gun control groups that hold an annual vigil for victims of gun violence.
When that event was canceled, students from March for Our Lives, the movement launched after 17 were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Florida in 2018, decided they had to do something. A group of about 15 college students and one high schooler slept overnight in the offices of two Democratic lawmakers to ensure they could make it into the Capitol area safely. The lawmakers, Hurst and Del. Dan Helmer — who’s sponsoring a bill that would block the National Rifle Association from operating an indoor gun range at its headquarters — camped out as well.
Michael McCabe, a 17-year-old high school senior from northern Virginia, said he was there to underscore the “moral urgency” felt by a generation “unduly affected” by gun violence.
“Our main goal is not to engage with gun extremists today,” McCabe said. “We are really here to be present in the legislature to make our voices heard.”
HUNTINGTON — Snow flurries and icy temperatures didn’t stop community members from taking part in the annual memorial march, put on by the Huntington-Cabell branch of the NAACP and Marshall University’s Department of Intercultural Affairs, in celebration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday Monday evening.
“Many people don’t know what our ancestors went through in order to make things good for us. We weren’t always able to do this,” said Sylvia Ridgeway, president of the Huntington-Cabell NAACP. “They were sicced by dogs, water hoses, everything, trying to keep them from making that march, and they made it anyway. If they can do it, we can do it.”
The march, which began at 16th Street Baptist Church and ended at the Joan C. Edwards Performing Arts Center on 5th Avenue, was all about bringing people together to inspire change, Ridgeway said, and for some, it’s a route they know like the back of their hand.
“I’ve been marching here for 33 years,” Teresa Stevens, 64, of Huntington, said. “I’ve been fighting for civil rights since I was eight or nine, and we still need it, we still need jobs, we still need to protest and let our requests be known.”
Stevens spent many of her childhood years in Baltimore, and her experiences there helped instill in her King’s teachings and priorities.
“The day that we arrived in Baltimore, Martin Luther King had been killed, and there were riots,” Stevens said. “We drove there with the U-Haul truck, with all our furniture, and when we got out, people were running up and down the streets and stuff was burning. We knew nothing about violence, we knew about nonviolence, and I’m still advocating for nonviolence. People don’t value others’ lives anymore, and he did.”
Del. Sean Hornbuckle, D-Cabell, said seeing members of the community rally together was the perfect way to honor King’s legacy.
“What I love about today is seeing the different, unique people,” Hornbuckle said. “We’ve got young kids, we’ve got older people, we’ve got city officials, state officials, community members, all different colors, shapes, sizes, and it’s really the vision of what Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had — unity, freedom, equality, economic empowerment — and those things still ring true today.”
A celebration and observance followed the march at the playhouse.
In nearby Ashland, Kentucky, the Boyd and Greenup counties branch of NAACP also celebrated King on Monday morning with a march and gathering at the Ashland Transportation Center. The event was co-sponsored by Ashland Community and Technical College and featured performances by Christ Temple Church and the Singing Kernels, of Ashland, as well as various speakers.
FORT GAY, W.Va. — A small municipality in Wayne County has become the first in West Virginia to declare itself a Second Amendment sanctuary.
On Friday, Jan. 17, Fort Gay Town Council members held a special meeting to adopt a resolution making it the first town in the state to have that designation.
Mayor Joetta Hatfield said she heard several residents express concerns over gun rights recently and believed it was time for town officials to make a move.
“I felt like it was something we needed to do even though it’s mostly symbolic, but I think sent a strong message to our citizens and surrounding areas,” she said.
Earlier this month, the Putnam County Commission adopted a countywide resolution that officials say frees county residents from any law that unconstitutionally restricts gun ownership.
Putnam County was the first of West Virginia’s 55 counties to take such a step. In Virginia, about 100 counties, cities and towns have passed some version of a Second Amendment sanctuary resolution, after Virginia voters handed control of the state legislature to Democrats in an historic shift last year. Lawmakers there have introduced a number of gun control bills this year.
Cabell County Commissioner Kelli Sobonya intends to introduce a resolution during the Cabell County Commission’s Jan. 23 meeting declaring that county a sanctuary for gun rights.
The Fort Gay Town council was required to hold two special meetings for two separate readings of the ordinance before it was passed. Those occurred one week apart, and the ordinance was unanimously approved (5-0) after the second reading Friday.
“I’m very proud of my town, my citizens, my council members, and I think we made a bold statement and I hope that others will follow suit,” Hatfield said.
She added other mayors from municipalities in southern and central regions of the state already have contacted her requesting a copy of the new ordinance.
Danny Grace, mayor of the Town of Wayne, said he received a copy of the ordinance and will present it for consideration at the regular meeting Feb. 10.
Though Hatfield recognizes that the designation is more symbolic than anything else, she said the action taken has the potential to unite communities, and has seen that be true for her town.
“More than anything, I think it’s just an insurance policy for the citizens and a way to make a bold statement,” said Hatfield. “It unified our community after they saw that we (council) felt the same way they did.”
CHARLESTON — The West Virginia Senate on Monday passed a bill opposed by the ACLU of West Virginia to allow faith-based electives in drug prevention courses taught in K-12 public schools.
Senate Bill 42 requires the state board of education to create rules on how faith-based electives will be taught consistent with the Constitution. The bill passed unanimously.
The same bill also passed the Senate last session, but never left the House Education committee.
Sen. Mark Maynard, R-Wayne, sponsor of the bill, said the idea for the bill came when he met the director of Teen Challenge, a Christian faith-based substance abuse recovery program in Mercer County.
“He stated one of his issues was not being able to mentor and teach in the public school system due to no allowance in our state code,” Maynard said.
Maynard said he has contacted the West Virginia chapter of the Congressional Prayer Caucus to urge the House to pick up the bill this time around.
The ACLU of West Virginia opposes the bill, saying it requires the school board to violate the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution.
“The government (and that includes public schools) cannot promote or show a preference for any religion or religious belief,” the ACLUWV writes on its website about the bill. “A faith-based curriculum is, well, based in a particular faith. A school who is offering that course is promoting that faith. This is not fixed by making it an elective either — the end result is still a school official promoting a specific religion or religious belief.”
In writing about the bill last year, the ACLU said based on testimony about the bill, legislators were specifically hoping to use this to allow a single specific Christian drug prevention program into the public schools.