Who is the Man Behind the Gun Rally That Has Virginia On Edge?
Until a rally to support gun rights in Richmond, Va., ignited fears that it would attract violence from extremists, the man organizing Monday’s event at the State Capitol was last caught in the national spotlight when he fell victim to a comedian’s ruse about arming small children.
But as the leader of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, Philip Van Cleave, a software programmer and former sheriff’s deputy, has been an influential pro-gun advocate in the state and beyond for more than two decades.
The concerns expressed by officials in recent days over possible violence at the rally have put Mr. Van Cleave in the position of both fighting restrictions against being armed at the Capitol and issuing calls for it to be a peaceful demonstration.
A Voice for Gun Owners in Virginia
Mr. Van Cleave, 67, grew up in Chicago and San Antonio, and played guitar in a rock band, according to a profile in his local newspaper, The Chesterfield Observer. When he and his wife moved to Virginia from Texas in 1980, he told the paper, he missed carrying a handgun, which was more difficult for him to do in Virginia at the time because he was no longer a sheriff’s deputy.
When the law changed in 1995, giving anyone in Virginia the right to carry a concealed weapon unless the local jurisdiction could show a good reason not to issue a permit, Mr. Van Cleave started carrying again and said his interest in gun rights grew.
While lobbying state lawmakers on his own, he met members of the organization that would become Virginia Citizens Defense League and joined up, eventually becoming president in 2001. The group has donated tens of thousands of dollars to lawmakers over the years, lobbying to preserve gun rights and stop any new restrictions on owning weapons.
That job became tougher in November, when Democrats won control of both chambers of the General Assembly. Along with the governorship, they now have full control of state government for the first time in a generation, and have declared their intention to pursue proposals for background checks, “red-flag laws” that allow guns to be taken away from people who pose potential harm, and limiting firearm purchases to one a month.
As part of the opposition to that effort, Mr. Van Cleave, who did not return calls for comment, has helped to convince more than 100 cities and towns in Virginia to either vote in support of gun rights or declare themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries,” in which officials say they would resist any new gun laws.
He has said that he expects as many as 50,000 people to show up to support gun rights on Monday, the traditional lobbying day at Virginia’s State Capitol, which is held on the holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday because so many people are off work. His group is suing to stop Gov. Ralph Northam’s emergency order that would ban guns from the State Capitol grounds for the rally, arguing that it’s an unnecessary overreaction.
National Attention in the Wake of Shootings
With his willingness to stick up for gun rights, Mr. Van Cleave has been a regular presence in the news media after mass shootings.
After the deaths of 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, he told The Washington Post that gun owners were under attack. He said someone phoned him after the shooting to call him a “coward,” and he defended the desire to own weapons like the .223-caliber Bushmaster, a military-style semiautomatic rifle that was used in the shooting spree.
“Guns are fun, and some of them are much more cool than others,” he said. Bushmasters, he said, “are absolutely a blast to shoot with.”
Perhaps most notably, Mr. Van Cleave was one of the subjects who got deceived by the comedian Sacha Baron Cohen on the show “Who is America?” in 2018. The comedian and his crew convinced Mr. Van Cleave to film a gun-training video for children, called “Kinder Guardians,” which included weapons with names like the Puppy Pistol and Gunny Rabbit.
Mr. Van Cleave would later say that he knew he was being tricked but went along to try to discover who was behind it. “They use psychological manipulation,” he posted on Facebook. Still, the setup caused Virginia lawmakers who had taken money from the Virginia Citizens Defense League to distance themselves from Mr. Van Cleave and his organization.
Claiming the Label ‘Extremist,’ but Advocating Peaceful Protest
Although he has said that he wants Monday’s rally at the State Capitol to be “a peaceful event about gun rights and nothing else,” Mr. Van Cleave has also welcomed militias and other antigovernment groups to help lobby state lawmakers in opposition to the proposed gun control measures.
On Dec. 18, he released a statement that called on militias to join the cause and even suggested that paramilitary groups might do some charity work to help win over hearts and minds. However, he turned down their offers to provide security, which he said would be adequately handled by the police and “enough citizens armed with handguns to take over a modern mid-sized country.”
He has specifically embraced the label of “extremist” when it comes to gun ownership.
“There’s nothing wrong with being extreme in the preservation of our civil rights,” he wrote in a letter to The Winchester Star in July, responding to calls for tighter gun control measures. “VCDL is proud to be categorized as an extremist organization, and we fully intend to continue being such!”
Such statements have led experts who track far-right extremists and related groups to criticize Mr. Van Cleave for his rhetoric. “He is a showman trying to get attention,” said Megan Squire, a computer science professor at Elon University in North Carolina who studies online extremism.
On Monday, Mr. Van Cleave has urged rally attendees to avoid violence or any activity that could put gun rights supporters in a bad light. His group sent an alert saying that Democrats wanted to make gun advocates look bad and asked supporters to avoid focusing on “statues, flags, racism, sexism, or anything other than protecting the right to keep and bear arms.”
Timothy Williams contributed reporting.
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