What to Know About the Virginia Gun Rally
Thousands of activists from across the country are expected to descend on the Virginia State Capitol on Monday to rally against sweeping new gun control proposals supported by state Democrats.
But the rally in Richmond — billed as a peaceful event to lobby lawmakers to defend Second Amendment rights — has quickly set off fears of potential violence and chaos. Discussions about the rally have been lighting up online platforms frequented by anti-government militia groups and white supremacists for weeks, and various extremist groups have vowed to attend.
Tensions escalated this week when Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency and temporarily banned weapons on Capitol grounds, citing credible “threats of violence.” The F.B.I. also announced the arrest of three suspected neo-Nazis who the authorities said had obtained weapons and discussed participating in the Richmond event, intensifying concerns.
Here’s what you need to know about the rally and what to expect for Monday.
Why is the rally happening now?
Virginia Democrats flipped the state House and Senate in November, wresting the General Assembly from Republican control in a state that was once the seat of the Confederacy.
Under Mr. Northam, a Democrat who survived a scandal over a racist photograph last year, state Democrats planned to make gun control a priority in the 2020 session. But the plan sparked a backlash in a state with a strong history of supporting gun rights.
After 12 people were killed in a mass shooting in Virginia Beach last year, a special legislative session to consider gun control lasted just 90 minutes. In recent weeks, more than 100 municipalities have designated themselves “sanctuaries” for the Second Amendment. Though the measures are purely symbolic, lawmakers and sheriffs in those areas have said they will refuse to enforce new gun control laws.
What are the proposed Virginia gun laws?
The Virginia State Senate has approved three gun control bills that could be approved by the House of Delegates as early as next week.
The measures limit purchases of handguns to one each month; require that gun buyers submit to background checks and allow local governments to ban guns in parks and public buildings. Mr. Northam has said he would sign each of the bills.
Democrats who won control of the General Assembly, in part for their support of imposing strict firearms restrictions, say more gun control legislation is on the way, including a red flag law that would permit officials to confiscate firearms from people deemed dangerous to themselves or others. They also say they want to ban assault-style weapons, but that effort has been delayed in both chambers.
Who is expected to attend the rally?
The rally is being hosted by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a prominent Second Amendment group that typically holds an annual “Lobby Day” to meet with lawmakers. The group is organizing charter buses, car pools and a sushi dinner the night before the rally in anticipation of what it is calling “the most important Lobby Day Rally that we have ever had.”
The group’s president Philip Van Cleave, who refers to himself as an extremist, issued a statement saying that the rally was meant to be a peaceful protest “about gun rights and nothing else.”
In a state where hunting is a popular sport and gun ownership is common in rural areas, most in attendance are expected to be gun rights supporters. Still, the rally has drawn the attention of militia groups from as far away as Nevada and Oklahoma, including those tracked by the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Anti-Defamation League.
Others vowing to attend include individuals associated with the Light Foot Militia, some of whom were banned from Charlottesville after the “Unite the Right” rally in 2017, which ended in the death of a counterprotester. Richard B. Spencer, a prominent white nationalist who is among 24 defendants in a lawsuit over the rally in Charlottesville, also said he might attend.
Experts on extremism believe the groups want to co-opt the rally in an effort to fuel a race war. For example, extremists are calling Monday’s rally the “boogaloo,” which in the language of white supremacists is an event that will accelerate such a war.
It remains unclear who will actually arrive in Richmond, but it’s possible pre-emptive moves by the authorities could deter some who had vowed to attend.
What is the Base?
The authorities on Thursday announced the arrests of three men linked to the Base, an extremist group being tracked by the F.B.I. The three men had obtained weapons and discussed participating in the Richmond rally and were charged with various federal crimes in Maryland, the authorities said.
On Friday, law enforcement announced the arrest of at least four other men also tied to the Base, in separate plots. In Georgia, three men, who are members of the group, were arrested and charged for a conspiracy to murder a married couple in Bartow County, the authorities said.
In Wisconsin, another member of the Base was arrested on charges of vandalizing a synagogue in Racine, Wis., according to court documents.
The Base is a white extremist, antigovernment group that aims to establish a white “ethno-state.”
The F.B.I. has grown increasingly concerned about the Base as it has worked to recruit more people. The group encourages the onset of anarchy, according to the Counter Extremism Project, an organization that tracks far-right extremists. Experts say that its founder, an American, appears to be living in Russia.
Former law enforcement officials say the Base and a similar group known as Atomwaffen have become priorities for the F.B.I.
In November, the F.B.I. arrested Richard Tobin, a young man in New Jersey, who was accused of recruiting on behalf of the Base and of supporting violence, including the killing of black people with a machete.
How long will the state of emergency last?
Mr. Northam declared a state of emergency ahead of Monday’s rally, temporarily banning weapons, including firearms, from the grounds of the State Capitol in a move that the Virginia Citizens Defense League tried to fight in court.
The Virginia Supreme Court upheld the temporary ban.
In his declaration, Mr. Northam cited the eruption in Charlottesville three years ago as an example of “what can happen when peaceful demonstrations are hijacked by those who come into the Commonwealth and do not value the importance of peaceful assembly.” He added: “We must take all precautions to prevent that from ever happening again.”
The state of emergency is scheduled to begin Friday at 5 p.m. and extend through Tuesday.
Timothy Williams, Neil MacFarquhar and Adam Goldman contributed reporting.
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