RICHMOND, Va. (WWBT/Gray News) - Tens of thousands of gun-rights activists from around the country rallied peacefully at the Virginia Capitol to protest plans by the state’s Democratic leadership to pass gun-control legislation that have become a key flash point in the national debate over gun violence.
The size of the rally Monday and the expected participation of white supremacists and fringe militia groups raised fears that the state could see a repeat of the violence that exploded in 2017 in Charlottesville.
But the rally concluded uneventfully around noon, and the mood was largely festive.
Attendees spilled into the streets, chanting “USA” and waving signs denouncing Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam.
Virginia politicians released the following statements in regards to the Second Amendment rally on Monday afternoon:
House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert:
"I want to thank the tens of thousands of Virginians who came out to make their voices heard at today’s Second Amendment Lobby Day. The crowd was exactly what it has been in years past -- peaceful, respectful, and orderly -- except much, much larger. More than 20,000 people gathered with no arrests and no injuries. They even picked up their own trash.
"Even when thrown a last-minute curveball by Governor Northam, Virginia’s Second Amendment community accepted it with grace and did what they always do -- make their voices heard while complying with the law. Those who wanted to go into buildings or onto Capitol Square disarmed, while those who did not wish to do so stood outside the security perimeter. I also want to thank the hundreds of law enforcement personnel who spent a day out in the cold, working to ensure everyone’s safety.
“I hope Virginia Democrats take a lesson from today’s peaceful rally. The law-abiding gun owners in attendance today are the ones who would bear the brunt of their anti-gun proposals, which would have little to no impact on crime or criminals. Meanwhile, Democrats are working to release more criminals onto the streets before they complete their sentences. Keeping our communities safe requires us to focus on those who break the law, not those who scrupulously abide by it.”
A statement from Gov. Ralph Northam:
We are all thankful that today passed without incident. The teams successfully de-escalated what could have been a volatile situation. This resulted from weeks of planning and extensive cooperation among state, local, and federal partners in Virginia and beyond.
Virginia’s law enforcement and first responders demonstrated tremendous professionalism. I’m proud of their work. I have spoken with Colonel Settle of the State Police, Colonel Pike of the Capitol Police, and Chief Smith of the Richmond Police Department, as well as leaders of the FBI and the U.S. Attorney’s office, and thanked them for keeping Virginia safe.
Thousands of people came to Richmond to make their voices heard. Today showed that when people disagree, they can do so peacefully. The issues before us evoke strong emotions, and progress is often difficult. I will continue to listen to the voices of Virginians, and I will continue to do everything in my power to keep our Commonwealth safe.
Around 3:45 p.m., Capitol Police announced that one person had been arrested around 1:30 p.m. by a Richmond Police Officer.
Police said Mikaela E. Beschler, 21, of Richmond was charged with one felony count of wearing a mask in public. She was arrested after the officer saw her for a third time with a bandanna covering her face. He warned her two other times prior to adjust the bandana.
She was released on her own recognizance.
Around 3:30 p.m., Capitol Police said they re-estimated the crowd size to have been around 22,000 people - 6,000 on Capitol Square and 16,000 outside the gates.
Following the rally, Virginia Moms Demand Action held a news conference around 2:45 p.m. saying Virginia voters made it clear they want gun safety laws.
As of about 1:40 p.m. ET, Capitol Square has cleared out and no arrests have been made by Capitol Police.
Gov. Ralph Northam declared a temporary state of emergency days ahead of Monday’s rally, banning all weapons including guns from Capitol Square, where the event is being held. Thousands are expected to attend from all over the state and country.
Militia groups and white supremacists were among those expected to mix with gun-rights activists, raising fears that the state could again see the type of violence that exploded in Charlottesville in 2017.
Groups planning to come to the rally included Virginia Citizens Defense League, Gun Owners of America, Oath Keepers, Three Percenter Movement and white supremacists.
Gun safety groups have called off their annual gathering on Capitol Square citing safety concerns. That event, held by the Virginia Center for Public Safety, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence had a permit to rally from 3 to 4 p.m. They were holding a vigil to remember the victims of gun violence - an event they had for 28 years.
In a statement, the organizations said they canceled with heavy hearts out of an abundance of caution due to serious threats of violence.
These protests come as proposed gun measures move forward in the general assembly. They require background checks on all firearms purchases, limit handgun purchases to one per month and also allow localities to ban guns from certain events and government buildings.
Three bills passed the state Senate, but the House has yet to take up any gun measures.
While Northam and the rally organizer are calling for peace, police are on high alert and security is extremely tight, amid concern over threats from extremist groups.
Fencing and blockades have been in place since last week. The FBI along with local police officers were expected at the Capitol.
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