RICHMOND, Va. — 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 host of gun restrictions. The 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 Monday. 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, Va., 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 last week.
Extremist groups have blanketed social media and online forums with ominous messages and hinted at potential violence. The FBI said it arrested three men Thursday linked to a violent white supremacist group Thursday who were planning to attend the rally, according to a law enforcement official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
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 asked the Virginia Supreme Court to rule Northam’s declaration unconstitutional, but the court upheld the ban Friday.
Northam said there were credible threats of violence — like weaponized drones being deployed over Capitol Square. On Friday, the Federal Aviation Administration 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 in August 2017. One woman was killed and more than 30 other people were hurt when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of counterprotesters there.
The Virginia State Police, the Virginia Capitol Police and the Richmond Police are all coordinating for the event and have plans for a huge police presence that will include both uniformed and plainclothes officers.
Alan Suderman and Denise Lavoie are Associated Press writers.
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