by Brandon Jarvis
Capitol Police estimated that 22,000 people attended a rally on Monday that was hosted by the Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL) yesterday in Richmond. Gun activists and enthusiasts traveled from across the country to show their support of the VCDL, led by Philip Van Cleave, as they push legislators to vote against any new gun control measures in the General Assembly.
The rally took place on the grounds at the Capitol building, where the General Assembly meets for session. The Governor’s Mansion is also located on the property; however it is tucked away out of sight from attendees of the rally on Monday.
The rally went off without any major problems, relatively speaking, although it helped that all of the groups that were expected to show up in support of gun control measures cancelled their events for the day. Lori Haas, the director for Virginia’s Chapter of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence (CSGV) released a statement that the cancellation was due to safety concerns:
“We have chosen to cancel the event due to the ongoing, credible threats to public safety that have been promoted and encouraged by gun extremists.”
One person was arrested at the rally for wearing a mask. Something that is usually taboo at these types of events, several people in attendance were wearing a mask of some sort. One police officer eventually told me that the law was not being enforced because it cold enough for them to let that slide.
However, police say that they gave the woman who they arrested multiple warnings to remove her mask before charging her with a felony. It is not clear why the police chose to make this attendee remove her mask in the first place.
But with that being the only incident of record from the rally, Republicans are claiming a victory.
“I hope Virginia Democrats take a lesson from today’s peaceful rally.” said Republican minority leader Todd Gilbert after the 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.”
Attendees of the event spoke optimistically about the prospects of this rally changing the minds of Democratic legislators. However, several speakers – including elected officials and activists – continued to remind the people in attendance that none of this matters if they do not and go out and vote for 2nd amendment candidates.
One man from southwest Virginia, talking to a small crowd near the Capitol Bell Tower, said that if the gun control legislation is passed, the group of people who would be impacted the most would be minority communities. “We can’t let these Democrats hurt the law-abiding black people across this great state!” When told that several minority members of the community were afraid to attend the event due to fears of racists group that planned to attend, the man who introduced himself as Willis, blamed the media. “The media wants everyone to be afraid.”
However, Democrats appear to have no plans to falter from what most of them believe is the will of the voters after the last election. Since making big gains this past November at the polls, Democrats hold a solid 55-45 majority in the House of Delegates and a 21-19 majority in the Senate. The issue that was at the top of the platform for Democratic campaigns across the Commonwealth in 2019 was passing common-sense gun violence prevention legislation.
According to Jake Rubenstein, a spokesman for Speaker of the House Eileen Filler-Corn, Democrats in the House are not going to waiver on gun legislation.
“Virginians spoke very clearly on Election Day. They demanded action. We will fulfill their mandate and pass common-sense gun violence prevention that make our communities safer.”
Del. Mike Mullin (D) from Newport News says he does not expect any Democrats to vote any different after Monday’s events.
“I think Virginians had an opportunity to debate this fully on November 5th, and that there was a strong mandate given to us for common sense-gun legislation.”
While opponents at the rally often said there is nothing common sense about the legislation put forth, polling disagrees. A poll from late 2019 showed that 95% of Democrats and 81% of Republicans support universal background checks. That poll also found similar numbers of support from both parties for red-flag laws, which would give a judge the authority to remove a weapon from an individual in a dangerous situation.
Not every single Republican shares the full-throated beliefs of the VCDL in opposing all gun legislation. Senator Siobhan Dunnavant from Henrico is a Republican who won a tough race in a tough district for Republicans. Dunnavant voted with the Democrats on legislation requiring universal background checks for gun sales. The Republican Senator explained why she voted for the bill afterwards:
“I believe it has the potential to prevent gun violence by preventing people who should not have guns from purchasing them. It does not obstruct law abiding Virginians from their second amendment rights.”
Although her group canceled its event, Lori Haas of the CSGV said she has no plans of slowing down in her work. Haas said she was at the General Assembly until 4 p.m. on the day of the rally and plans to be back on Tuesday by 8 a.m. And more pieces of gun legislation are on the docket for a House Public Safety subcommittee meeting.
Democrats in the House of Delegates are expecting to pass the same, or very similar bill that have already passed in the Senate. In addition to universal background checks and red-flag laws, this includes one-handgun-a-month legislation and giving localities the power to ban weapons from public spaces.
After the rally on Monday, Democratic Governor Ralph Northam released a statement noting how passionately Virginans feel about this issue.
“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.”
Northam has been the target of gun activists from the start. On the streets outside the Capitol on Monday, activists toting AR-15’s were circulating a petition to “recall the Governor,” and posters of his racist yearbook page could be seen in every direction. Even as he faces the immediate brunt of the backlash from gun rights demonstrators, Northam is expected to sign all of these bills into law when they reach his desk.
Courtney Champion, a representative for Moms Demand Action in Richmond, says that while they were not at the Capitol to rally for better legislation yesterday, they were still working.
“While the rally was going on today, Moms Demand Action volunteers in Virginia and across the country were phonebanking to connect Virginia voters with their lawmakers to thank those who have spoken out for gun safety and to tell them to keep going to pass background checks and a strong red flag law. I’m confident they’ll do that, and I don’t think anything that happened today is going to deter them.”