Protesters worried new laws in Virginia will lead to gun safety legislation throughout the country.
Elle Meyers also contributed reporting.
Thousands of protestors gathered in Richmond Monday to oppose new gun safety legislation proposed by Democrats, including improved background checks and restricting access to firearms for people found by a court to be a danger to themselves or others.
The event was crowded but largely peaceful after threats of violence led Gov. Ralph Northam to declare a temporary state of emergency, banning guns from the state Capitol grounds. In the days before the protest the FBI arrested several members of a white supremacist group, known as the Base, which allegedly planned to open fire at the rally to incite a “race war.”
Despite the ban on guns, many protesters showed up with high-powered assault rifles and lined the streets around the Capitol building.
“I wasn’t sure how many bullets to bring,” one man with an assault rifle slung around his back told The Dogwood. He declined to give his name.
Protesters also wore bright orange stickers that said “Guns save lives,” and expressed concern that having any gun safety laws approved in Virginia would lead to more throughout the country.
A Fredericksburg resident who gave only his first name, Carlton, held a rifle and several sleeves of ammunition. When asked if he thought the government would take away all his guns, a prospect that Virginia legislators have not proposed but many at the rally seemed to think was possible, he said no.
“They’re not taking away anyone’s guns,” he said. But he added that “we don’t like the laws, we don’t want to be turned into felons, but…”
One woman from King William, Virginia, compared laws against illegal drugs to gun safety bills.
“You know there are laws against drugs and there’s still a drug problem. I don’t think it’s right to take our guns from people who are abiding by the laws and take our rights,” she said.
Counter protesters met with reporters in Richmond to share their perspective after the rally. Lisette Johnson, who survived being shot by her husband, spoke about the importance of having “red flag” laws that could keep guns from people with a history of domestic violence. “For me there was no recourse,” to do something like that, Johnson said. She also addressed protesters fears that the government was going to confiscate their guns.
“In Virginia we passed some laws that you can’t text while you drive. That doesn’t mean that the government’s gonna confiscate every person’s cell phone. And so this thinking that this is the next natural thing … it’s a misinformation campaign,” Johnson said.
Democrats in Virginia’s General Assembly are not trying to confiscate guns but are pursuing legislation that is widely popular with residents of the state. A December poll from Virginia Commonwealth University found that 84% of Virginians support laws to prevent the mentally ill from buying guns, and 83% support making private and gun show sales subject to background checks.
This story has been updated to include comments from counter protesters.