More than 20,000 people converged in the streets of Richmond, Virginia, on Monday to protest their right to bear arms in the face of swingeing state gun control laws set to be enacted later this year.
They started arriving before dawn – army veterans, stay-at-home-moms, attorneys, welders, democrats, republicans – united under banners defending the second amendment and, they believe, a constitution under attack.
And many of them came with their guns: AR-15s, long-guns and handguns. Governor Ralph Northam had issued a ban on a list of weapons including guns on Capitol Grounds but though the official rally was confined to a steel pen in the grounds sloping up to Virginia State Capitol, there were more people outside that perimeter and outside the scope of the ban.
Security was tight and visible – hundreds of cops on the streets and in the grounds, screening lanes at the only entrance to the park, the rest of which had been fenced off.
Officials say 7,000 actually entered the rally site and another 15,000 remained in the streets.
On Monday morning, President Trump fanned the flames of the already simmering tensions by tweeting: ‘The Democrat Party in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia are working hard to take away your 2nd Amendment rights.
‘This is just the beginning. Don’t let it happen, VOTE REPUBLICAN in 2020!’
Only one person was arrested at Monday’s protest – 21-year-old Mikaela E. Beschler, 21, of Richmond.
She was arrested for not removing her face mask – which had been banned – despite being warned by police to three times.
Local sheriffs say they will not even enforce the changes if Northam makes them.
Sheriff Scott Jenkins of Culpeper County said over the weekend: ‘I’m not saying that I will not enforce duly enacted laws, but I’m not saying that I will.’
At Monday’s rally, Sheriff Richard Vaughan of Grayson County said: ‘If the bills go through as proposed, they will not be enforced; they’re unconstitutional.’
‘It’s just rhetoric,’one observed. ‘What are those fences going to do against bullets? What difference does it make if the rifle is over here or in there?’
Social media posts had told of convoys and militias traveling across states to Virginia to support their ‘brothers and sisters’ and they came in their hundreds.
The official rally, organized by pro-gun advocacy group, The Virginia Citizens Defense League, was slated to start at 8am and end at noon. It is an annual part of Lobby Day – just one event among others as citizens are given the chance to come to the Capitol and lobby on a variety of issues.
But this year gun control has eclipsed all others and outside Capitol walls brigades assembled. Some distinguished their own ‘soldiers’ from others with armbands made from yellow caution tape.
By 9.30 they had assembled in columns on East 9th Street to the east of the Capitol.
Heavily armed and in military uniform they had, they said, traveled from ‘out of state.’
One who spoke to DailyMail.com described himself simply as ‘former military and a concerned citizen.’
He said, ‘I deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq. I bled repeatedly for this country.
‘I’m here to defend it again.
‘We’re here to be the crowd the governor sees when he looks out of his window.’
These men were not there to give their names.
They were there to make a stand; a show of force, should it be needed.
‘We want to do things the peaceful way,’ one protester said.
‘And that’s what this is but it’s not the only way.’
The issue was contentious enough in this, General Robert E Lee’s home state, before President Trump tweeted on Friday afternoon: ‘Your 2nd Amendment is under very serious attack in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia.
That’s what happens when you vote for Democrats, they will take your guns away. Republicans will win Virginia in 2020. Thank you Dems!’
The governor declared a state of emergency last week and the Federal Aviation Administration issued a temporary flight restriction making it illegal to fly planes or drones above the city on Monday.
For Michelle Smelkinson, there with husband Ron and nineteen-year-old son Reagan (named after the president) the reasons for being there seemed self-evident.
She said, ‘Our governor is a monster and wants to turn us into New York and that’s not going to happen in Virginia.
‘We’re not killing babies and we won’t have our guns taken away.’
The Chesapeake family had dressed in Colonial uniforms that drew good-humored comments and praise.
‘We dressed like this because we’re patriots, traditionalists, defenders of our constitutional rights.’
John, from Massachusetts, hadn’t intended to go until the state of emergency was declared. That was the trigger for him. He said, ‘I’m here to stand with my fellow Americans. They’re trying to do here what they’ve already done to my state.
‘It’s amazing to be here surrounded by so many people carrying. It’s awesome.’
Video courtesy Washington Examiner
Former soldier Samson, who made the 8 hours trip to Virginia with John, said, ‘It’s refreshing to be surrounded by so many supporters. We brought first aid kits just in case.
‘You prepare for the worst in these situations but hope for the best. We don’t want trouble. This is a peaceful thing – we’re just defending what is a human right.’
Stay at home mom, Kim Orndorff, from Winchester, Virginia lined up at 4am to ‘stand up for the second amendment.’
The blonde-haired lawyer by trade and other of three stood with her AR.15 across her chest.
She said, ‘I just think it’s insane that we could be suddenly criminals for something that is in our constitution – the right to bear arms.
‘I’m a peaceful person, I’m law abiding. I haven’t even had a speeding ticket!’
Fluorescent orange stickers proclaimed, ‘Guns Save Lives,’ from the hundreds of jackets on which they were stuck. Sporadic chants of, ‘USA! USA!’ broke out among the crowds.
One enterprising vendor had set up a stand selling Trump pins, hats and T-shirts. ‘Don’t be a Democrat. Get Yourself a Trump Hat!’ he chanted.
Brad Slaybaugh, a working dog trainer from Colonial Heights, had given up a day of shooting ducks to be at the Capitol today.
According to Slaybaugh, ‘The next challenge is to keep this passion going and turn it into votes. What we’re standing up for here is the American ideal and too many people have forgotten what that is.’
Slaybaugh established a facebook group Virginia Rising just ten weeks ago – designed to promote and defend the constitution as he sees it. One hundred and ten thousands people have already signed up to register their support.
Virginian marine veteran Dave, said of his reason for being there today, ‘I put my life on the line for this country for nine years. I’m a democrat and a lifelong NRA member.
‘It’s a damn horrible thing to put your life on the line for your country and come back home and have your politicians betray you and stab you in the back.’
Both pro gun activists and anti-fascist demonstrators are expected to attend Monday’s event which will officially kick off at 11.
Virginia Governor Ralph Northam has declared a state of emergency and has banned weapons in the capitol but many brought theirs anyway.
They will have to lose them before being screened at the actual protest site.
A long list of weapons has been banned but pocket knives are allowed inside so long as they measure less than three inches.
Snaking lines had already formed at the capitol by sunrise but the scene remains peaceful.
Frigid temperatures of 25F may also reduce the crowd size.
Some of the protesters have traveled from out of state to attend the event, whereas others – such as the Virginia Citizens Defense League – are passionately local.
Philip Van Cleave, leader of the league, said: ‘People are looking at this and saying, “This is a canary in the coal mine.
‘If they’re coming after rights in Virginia, then they’ll be coming for ours as well.”
They don’t want us to fail in stopping this. We’ve gotten huge donations from other states.’
Van Cleave has rejected calls for violence, but he has urged tens of thousands of armed militia leaders from across the United States to be in Richmond’s streets to provide security for his group.
A spokesman for the Capitol police said Van Cleave had worked closely with law enforcement officers on rally plans.
High-profile national militia figures gathered for a meeting on Sunday near Richmond said they wanted Monday’s event to be peaceful, but feared the worst, with most saying any ‘lone wolf’ could unleash bitter fighting with a single shot.
‘The buildup is probably one of the most intense I’ve seen,’ said Tammy Lee, a right-wing Internet personality from Oklahoma, who was a figurehead in Charlottesville.
Christian Yingling, head of the Pennsylvania Light Foot Militia and a leader at the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally, said none of his men would carry long guns and they wanted to avoid skirmishes, but forecast they would come.
‘With somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 people possibly coming out, this thing has enormous potential to go bad,’ he said.
Northam, a Democrat, has vowed to push through new gun control laws. He is backing a package of eight bills, including universal background checks, a ‘red flag’ law, a ban on assault rifles and a limit of one handgun-a-month purchase.
The state’s gun owners responded with a movement to create ‘sanctuary cities’ for gun rights, with local government bodies passing declarations not to enforce new gun laws.
Since the November election, nearly all of Virginia’s 95 counties have some form of ‘sanctuary’, a term first used by localities opposed to harsh treatment of illegal immigrants.
The idea has quickly spread across the United States, with over 200 local governments in 16 states passing such measures.
Despite the pushback, proponents of stronger gun laws say they are clearly winning the argument with the public, based on who got voted into office, and blame the tension on gun supporters.
‘We’re in this situation because the gun lobby has been pushing their message that we’re going to take all guns away – they’ve been fanning this fire for years,’ said Michelle Sandler, a Virginia state leader for Moms Demand Action, the grassroots arm of Everytown for Gun Safety.
It is not Northam’s first bid to tighten state gun laws. He called a special legislative session last summer after the massacre of 12 people in Virginia Beach, but the Republicans who then controlled it refused to vote on his proposals