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Authorities Monitoring Threats Ahead of Richmond Gun Rally

Gun rights activists with flags pack downtown Richmond
Thousands of gun rights activists amassed in downtown Richmond last year to protest proposed gun control legislation. (Craig Carper/VPM News)

Last year’s Richmond gun rally was a show of force for Second Amendment advocates, who thronged downtown in a scene the city had never seen before. But a similar spectacle is unlikely this year as second amendment activists will protest from cars and buses on Jan. 18.

And while the country is on edge after rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol, the event has not attracted the same level of interest in fringe and far-right media such as Infowars' Alex Jones. Virginia Citizens Defense League president Philip Van Cleave characterized the 2020 event as peaceful and said this year’s would be, too.

“We're not going to encourage any kind of violence; we never have,” Van Cleave said. “If there happens to be some, it won't be because we encouraged it, that's for sure.”

Still, Van Cleave said there was always a chance “provocateurs” could cause trouble. The FBI arrested three alleged members of a white supremicist group just days before last year’s rally, which also drew members of several far-right militia groups. Brian Moran, Virginia’s Secretary of Public Safety, said law enforcement agencies were collaborating to monitor similar threats this year.

Gun control activists like Lori Haas, director of advocacy at the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, are wary. Haas is planning to advocate for legislation in next week’s session to permanently put in place what are now short-term rules banning guns from Capitol Square as well as legislation banning guns from polling locations. 

“We have seen the gun lobby and many Republicans suggest and intimidate and promote the notion that the guy with the guns makes the rules,” Haas said. 

At least one of the announced virtual speakers at the VCDL event, Jared Yanis, attended Wednesday’s rally in Washington D.C. Yanis said in an email that he did not storm the Capitol and did not condone those activities, though he reposted a Facebook post saying U.S. Capitol Police should “do themselves a favor and go home.”

“Far too often, many of us want something to be done, but when people step up and do something about it, you’ve got shit to say about them,” he said in a video he posted to YouTube on his way home on Wednesday.

Unlike past years, lawmakers won’t be at their usual chamber in the Capitol for the 2021 sesion that begins January 13. The VCDL caravans will pass nearby the state Senate’s temporary chambers at the Science of Museum, while members of the House of Delegates are meeting virtually. Mike Dickenson, a former Richmond City Council candidate who is now running as a Republican for the House of Delegates, is planning his own rally at Lee Monument.

While VCDL members could exit the caravan on foot, an ordinance passed last year allows Richmond to prevent protestors from carrying firearms during public events in public areas. Critics argue the ban has been unevenly enforced. The Richmond Police Department did not respond to a request for comment. 

VCDL’s setup marks the latest incarnation of so-called Lobby Day, when special interest groups traditionally take advantage of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday to swarm lawmakers’ offices and hold rallies in Capitol Square. This year, gun control groups and other progressive causes swooped on permits before VCDL under circumstances that the groups dispute.

Either way, Van Cleave said the new arrangement worked out in the pandemic given the statewide restrictions on gatherings of more than ten people. The group’s methodical organizing has for years made it one of the most powerful grassroots lobbying groups in Richmond, though its influence has diminished under Virginia’s new Democratic majority. 

“We're not going away,” Van Cleave said. “They can fantasize over that, but it's not happening.”

Editor's Note: This article has been updated to include Jared Yanis' statement that he did not join the riot in the U.S. Capitol.

Ben Paviour covers courts and criminal justice for VPM News with a focus on accountability.
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