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22,000 demonstrators, many armed, rally for gun rights at Virginia Capitol

No reports of violence from the event, one arrest made

Approximately 22,000 people participated in the rally.
Approximately 22,000 people participated in the rally.

Despite concerns that a pro-gun rally in Richmond on Jan. 20 might turn violent, demonstrators — some openly armed — remained nonviolent while protesting gun control laws expected to be passed by the newly-elected Democratic legislature.

The Virginia legislature passed three bills Jan. 16. Included in the bills was a limit on handgun purchases to one per month and universal background checks for all gun sales. The legislature is considering other bills as well, including “red flag” laws and a ban on “assault weapons.”

In a statement following the event, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, D-Va., issued a statement applauding the de-escalation of a potentially violent event by law enforcement.

“Thousands of people came to Richmond to make their voices heard,” Northam said. “Today showed that when people disagree, they can do so peacefully.”

In advance of the rally, many individuals feared that the Richmond rally would be an event comparable to the August 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, which turned violent and culminated in the fatal car attack that killed activist Heather Heyer and caused injuries to two dozen more.

Three men from the white-supremacist group The Base were arrested by the FBI in advance of the rally after they had discussed attending. Nationally, four other men from the group were arrested by the FBI for offenses unrelated to the event. 

Groups that attended the rally included far-right groups such as the Proud Boys — which the FBI has classified an “extremist group” with ties to white nationalists — and anti-government movements including the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters.

Due to this threat and other information from state intelligence organizations, Northam signed Executive Order 49, which set in place a state of emergency from 5 p.m. Jan. 17 until 5 p.m. Jan. 21.

Professor Larry Sabato, director of the University of Virginia Center for Politics, credited police intelligence units for stopping potential violence.

“They monitored dark web traffic and, sure enough, caught white supremacists who were planning to cause mayhem, death, and destruction,” Sabato said. “Those arrests deterred others from showing up today, no doubt.” 

Only one arrest occurred 90 minutes after the rally official drew to a close. 21-year old Mikaela Beschler was arrested for wearing a mask in public after being warned twice about not covering her face with a bandana. Many rally participants also wore face masks but were not arrested. 

Thousands of people at the event were armed, with many wearing body armor and military-style fatigues. Approximately 22,000 people participated in the rally — well short of the 130,000 armed attendees that the organizers of the event predicted.

The protestors were comprised of 6,000 people on Capitol Square and 16,000 outside the fences. Inside the fences, weapons were banned after Northam issued a state of emergency. 

Many participants carried military-style weapons on the city streets, including one man armed with a .50 caliber sniper rifle. 

The rally was organized by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a pro-gun activist group. The VCDL has also spearheaded the Second Amendment Sanctuary movement in Virginia, where cities and counties have passed laws that are intended to impede gun control efforts.

Sheriff Richard Vaughn of Grayson County attended the event in support of gun owners, stating that he will not enforce the gun control laws if they pass as is.

Grayson County is one of many Virginia counties that has become a Second Amendment sanctuary, adopting the measure on Dec. 12, 2019. Out of 95 counties in Virginia, 91 have adopted Second Amendment Sanctuary resolutions. Of Virginia’s 38 independent cities, 15 have adopted these resolutions. 

The City Charlottesville is not a Second Amendment Sanctuary. Nor is Albemarle County, which rejected the passage of a resolution to become a sanctuary.

Sabato stated that he doesn’t expect the rally to have significant political consequences on the Virginia legislature.

“In a democracy like ours, change is determined by ballots, not bullets or rally size,” Sabato said. “Just a few months ago, Democrats running on gun control and public safety legislation scored a major victory and took over both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time in a generation. I predict the legislature will not be deterred by this rally, and will move ahead to pass the legislation that they promised.”

Correction: This article previously misstated that Oath Keepers and Three Percenters are white nationalist militias. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Oath Keepers and Three Percenters are anti-government movements. This article has been updated.