RICHMOND — Gun rights advocates and militia members from across the country are urging thousands of armed protesters to descend on Virginia’s capital in two weeks to stop newly empowered Democrats from passing gun-control bills.
What began as several rural Virginia counties declaring themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries has jumped the state’s borders and become an online phenomenon. Far-right websites and pundits are declaring that Virginia is the place to take a stand against what they see as a national trend of weakening gun rights.
Unlike blue bastions such as California and New York, Virginia is a Southern state with strong rural traditions and weak gun laws. Guns represent the strongest, reddest line against the demographic changes that have seen Old Dominion voters usher in a new era of Democratic leadership in recent elections.
And so a Nevada-based group called the Oath Keepers said it’s sending training teams to help form posses and militias in Virginia.
The leader of a Georgia militia called Three Percent Security Force has posted videos and calls to arms on Facebook, urging “patriots” to converge on Richmond.
The right-wing YouTube “American Joe Show” warned without evidence that Virginia will cut the power grid to stop the army of protesters — one of a host of rumors spreading online.
Law enforcement and public safety officials say they are monitoring the situation, including several instances of threats toward Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat.
Even some gun enthusiasts expressed concern about the potential for violence at a rally planned for the state Capitol on Jan. 20.
The Virginia Citizens Defense League, the grass-roots organization planning the rally, said it has told the state to prepare for as many as 50,000 or even 100,000 people showing up.
Police do not dismiss those projections. But at least so far, they have not seen indications that turnout will be that high.
Lawmakers said they have been in regular contact with state, city and Capitol police, and VCDL President Philip Van Cleave said he is keeping lines of communication open so all sides are prepared.
“Hopefully it’ll not be another Charlottesville,” Van Cleave said, blaming police and state planning for the violence that erupted during 2017’s Unite the Right rally around a Confederate statue. Counterprotester Heather Heyer was killed when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd.
Van Cleave has appealed to his supporters not to come bristling with intimidating long guns — including assault-style rifles such as the AR-15 — and politely suggested that militia members are welcome but do not need to provide security. Police will take care of that, he said, “not to mention enough citizens armed with handguns to take over a modern midsized country.”
That firepower is a concern for gun-control advocates, who also plan to turn out Jan. 20 — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — for what is a traditional day of citizen lobbying at the state Capitol.
“There’s a dangerous intersection here of speech and guns, and what I think is critically important is that we don’t see the sort of armed intimidation and even violence that resulted … in Charlottesville,” said Adam Skaggs, chief counsel and policy director at Giffords Law Center.
Democratic lawmakers who now have majorities in both houses of the General Assembly are considering making rules changes to limit where guns can be carried when the legislature convenes on Wednesday.
Visitors are currently allowed to bring guns onto Capitol Square and — with a concealed-weapons permit — into the Capitol itself and the adjacent Pocahontas Building. Firearms are even permitted in the House gallery, although the Senate gallery is off-limits.
Democrats won their majorities in November elections, ending a 26-year period in which Republicans were able to quash any proposed restrictions on guns. After 12 people were killed at a Virginia Beach municipal building by a gunman on May 31, Northam vowed to pass some form of gun control.
Northam called a special session of the legislature July 9 to take up the issue, but Republican leaders adjourned after 90 minutes without debating any bills.
Advocates on both sides of the gun debate took over Capitol Square that day, with one side toting guns and the other chanting protests or wearing red Moms Demand Action T-shirts.
Afterward, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, issued an opinion that militia members presenting themselves as peacekeepers could be violating state law.
The Jan. 20 event could be on a far bigger scale. Van Cleave said his organization typically charters three buses to bring in scores of advocates for Lobby Day; this year, he has already chartered 23 buses, and other groups have reserved 28 — and the number is climbing, he said.
Attention has been building since the Nov. 5 elections as the Second Amendment sanctuary movement has swept across the state.
More than 110 Virginia local bodies have passed resolutions on Second Amendment rights in the past few months. The rapid spread was fanned by an escalation of rhetoric online.
“Virginia is the state that is testing this unlawful, unconstitutional, Second Amendment gun grab,” Chris Hill, founder of Three Percent Security Force, said in a YouTube video. “If this is where it begins, then this is where it will end.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center calls Hill’s organization an anti-government extremist group.
In an interview Friday, Hill said his militia is not a hate group and predicted any violence on the 20th would come from left-wing “antifa” activists or MS-13 gang members.
Early in December, Rep. Donald McEachin, D-Richmond, responded to the Second Amendment sanctuary movement by suggesting in an interview that Northam might have to call out the National Guard to enforce gun laws.
Online, that turned into a false claim that Northam has actually called out the National Guard.
“Absolutely not,” Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said.
The commander of the Virginia National Guard, Maj. Gen. Timothy Williams, issued a statement that the organization had received “multiple questions” about its role in gun enforcement but that the governor had made no such requests.
Nonetheless, Williams seemed to feed the frenzy when he included in his statement, “we will not speculate about the possible use of the Virginia National Guard.”
One white supremacist blogger wrote a widely disseminated post claiming that Northam planned to call out the Guard and cut power and Internet service to thwart gun supporters.
That led to a meme with a fabricated quote in which Northam is made to say, “if you still refuse to comply I’ll have you killed.”
Both Snopes.com and PolitiFact have debunked the claims, but the falsehoods have reverberated in efforts to summon gun supporters to Richmond. Some of the comments in social media or on the Reddit thread r/VAGuns have turned menacing.
The conspiracy theory site Natural News posted an angry tirade about Northam, accusing him of starting a new civil war and suggesting vigilantes would kill any officials who tried to take their guns.
An anti-Semitic website said Jewish Democrats were “gun-grabbers,” including former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, the presidential candidate whose gun-control organization has poured millions into Virginia.
State officials declined to directly address the threats.
“Our administration is taking serious precautions to protect the safety of all visitors, policymakers, and staff during the upcoming General Assembly session,” Clark Mercer, Northam’s chief of staff, said via email. “This issue evokes strong feelings, but spreading lies, rumors, and misinformation is irresponsible and dangerous. All legislators and advocates have an obligation to tell the truth and not irresponsibly escalate emotions, regardless of what policy positions they hold on these issues.”
The nation’s most visible gun-rights group, the National Rifle Association, is taking an intentionally lower-key approach. It will sponsor town halls in three rural locations in the coming weeks, aimed at explaining proposed legislation.
Rather than publicize the Jan. 20 rally, the NRA has called on its members to visit lawmakers Jan. 13, the day it expects the first bills to be taken up by a committee chaired by Sen. John Edwards, D-Roanoke. It has not commented on the sanctuary cities movement.
All the outside attention has overwhelmed some of the homegrown gun rights advocates. Troy Carter, who helped rally support for a sanctuary proclamation in Amelia County outside Richmond, said he has seen the fiery social media posts.
“I am worried people will come here to Virginia and look for that opportunity to cause trouble,” he said.
“It’s not going to be the sanctuary guys, because we just want peace and to be left alone.”