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VA Gun-Rights Activists: Show of Force 01/18 09:30

VA Gun-Rights Activists: Show of Force 01/18 09:30

   RICHMOND, Va. (AP) -- Police are scouring the internet for clues about plans 
for mayhem, workers are putting up chain link holding pens around Virginia's 
picturesque Capitol Square, and one lawmaker even plans to hide in a safe house 
in advance of what's expected to be an unprecedented show of force by 
gun-rights activists.

   What is provoking their anger in this once reliably conservative state is 
the new Democratic majority leadership and its plans to enact a slew of gun 
restrictions. This clash of old and new has made Virginia - determined to 
prevent a replay of the Charlottesville violence in 2017 - ground zero in the 
nation's raging debate over gun control. 

   The Virginia Citizens Defense League's yearly rally at the Capitol typically 
draws just a few hundred gun enthusiasts. This year, however, thousands of gun 
activists are expected to turn out. 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. 

   "We're not going to be quiet anymore. We're going to fight them in the 
courts and on the ground. The illegal laws they're proposing are just straight 
up unconstitutional," said Timothy Forster, of Chesterfield, Virginia, an NRA 
member who had one handgun strapped to his shoulder and another tucked into his 
waistband as he stood outside a legislative office building earlier this week.

   VCDL president Philip Van Cleave said he's heard from groups around the 
country that plan to send members to Virginia, including the Nevada-based, 
far-right Oath Keepers, which has promised to organize and train armed posses 
and militia. 

   Extremist groups have blanketed social media and online forums with ominous 
messages and hinted at potential violence. The FBI said it arrested three men 
linked to a violent white supremacist group Thursday who were planning to 
attend the rally in Richmond, according to a law enforcement official who spoke 
to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss an active 
investigation. 

   Democrats have permanently banned guns inside the Capitol, and Gov. Ralph 
Northam declared a temporary state of emergency Wednesday that bans all 
weapons, including guns, from Capitol Square, during the rally to prevent 
"armed militia groups storming our Capitol." Gun-rights groups have asked the 
Virginia Supreme Court to rule Northam's declaration unconstitutional, but the 
court on Friday  upheld the ban.

   Northam said there were credible threats of violence - like weaponized 
drones being deployed over Capitol Square. On Friday, t he FAA issued a 
temporary flight restriction, including for drones, over Capitol airspace 
during the rally. 

   The governor said some of the rhetoric used by groups planning to attend 
Monday's rally is reminiscent of that used ahead of the white nationalist rally 
in Charlottesville on May 13, 2017. One woman was killed and more than 30 other 
people were hurt when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of counter 
protesters there.

   The Virginia State Police, the Virginia Capitol Police and the Richmond 
Police are all coordinating the event and have plans for a huge police presence 
at Monday's rally that will include both uniformed and plainclothes officers. 
Police plan to limit access to Capitol Square to only one entrance and have 
warned rally-goers that they may have to wait hours to get past security 
screening. 

   Nonessential state staff were being told to stay away. Del. Lee Carter, a 
Democratic Socialist, said he's planning to spend Monday at an undisclosed 
location because of threats he has received.

   "I ain't interested in martyrdom," Carter tweeted.

   Northam lamented that such precautions were necessary for what's been a 
peaceful yearly event, but said pro-gun activists have "unleashed something 
larger, something they may not be able to control." 

   The pushback against proposed new gun restrictions began immediately after 
Democrats won majorities in both the state Senate and House of Delegates in 
November. Much of the opposition has focused on a proposed assault weapons ban, 
which would affect thousands of owners of the popular AR-15-style rifles. One 
version of the bill, which Democrats later disavowed, would have required 
current owners of the rifles to turn them in or face felony charges.

   That bill was the spark that created the massive pushback, according to Sen. 
Creigh Deeds, one of the few moderate Democrats left in Virginia who represents 
rural areas.

   "That allowed people who like to inflame passions to say, 'Look, they're 
really coming after your guns, they're coming after you,'" Deeds said.

   Thousands of gun owners from around the state packed municipal meetings to 
urge local officials to declare their communities "Second Amendment 
Sanctuaries" opposed to "unconstitutional" gun restrictions like universal 
background checks. More than 125 cities, towns and counties have approved 
sanctuary resolutions in Virginia.

   Gun-control advocates, meanwhile, have also been flocking to Richmond to 
show their support for the proposed legislation. More than 200 volunteers with 
Moms Demand Action held a rally on Jan. 6. Gun control became a leading issue 
in the 2019 Virginia legislative elections after a city employee in Virginia 
Beach opened fire on his co-workers in May, killing 12 and injuring four 
others. 

   Janet Woody, a retired librarian from Richmond and a Moms volunteer, said 
she believes the proposed package of legislation can help reduce gun violence.

   "I just feel so angry and helpless because of all these massacres," she 
said. "You can call your legislator or write, but there comes a point where you 
just have to get out in the street."


(KR)