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Gun rally won’t return to Richmond this year due to new laws

Crowd of protesters
Hundreds gathered in Capitol Square in 2020 for a rally organized by the Virginia Citizens Defense League. (Photo: Ben Paviour/VPM News)

The group behind a major gun rally that drew tens of thousands of people to downtown Richmond in 2020 won’t stage a similar event this year. But the Virginia Citizens Defense League is still hoping to draw thousands of members to Richmond to lobby lawmakers on Jan. 17.

Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said gun restrictions passed by Democrats hamper his group’s ability to hold a rally.

“They put [in] laws that really targeted our organization,” Van Cleave said.

The 2020 rally drew gun owners ranging from hunters to far-right militia group members who were protesting Democrats’ plans to pass new gun control regulations after their takeover of the General Assembly.

Their calls went unheeded. While Democrats ended up modifying some rules and scrapping a proposed ban on military-style rifles, Gov. Ralph Northam signed most of their proposals into law, including a purchase limit of one handgun per month, universal background checks on gun sales and a ‘red flag’ law. A second round of laws passed last year banned guns from state buildings, Capitol Square in Richmond, and polling places, among others.

Van Cleave said contending with those rules, as well as a law allowing cities to restrict firearms at permitted events, made it impossible to stage an event like the 2020 rally this year. Gun control groups also quickly snagged a key permit to hold an event inside Capitol Square, freezing out VCDL. Instead, Van Cleave said his members would visit lawmakers on Jan. 17 – a traditional lobbying day for special interests – to push for the repeal of the rules.

Van Cleave said he hoped for hundreds, if not thousands of attendees – though it remains unclear if rules passed by the legislature could limit the number of people admitted into the building housing lawmakers’ offices. State law forbids gun owners from carrying inside state buildings.

VCDL held a vehicle caravan last year.

In a message to supporters, VCDL noted there would be streaming speakers and urged high turnout: “Our goal, unlike in previous years, will be to have as many gun owners as possible lobbying in the building all day long.”

Van Cleave says he hopes Republican gains in the House of Delegates and incoming Gov. Glenn Youngkin will pass new laws making it possible to rally in 2023.

The National Rifle Association, which had no role in the 2020 rally, is still determining what kind of event it might hold this year based in part on the rules passed by the General Assembly, according to D.J. Spiker, the NRA’s state director. Lawmakers could decide to limit the number of visitors in response to rising pandemic numbers, for example.

Both VCDL and the National Rifle Association say their top priority is scaling back or repealing the law allowing localities to ban guns on local property such as municipal buildings. Any changes would have to clear the state Senate where Democrats hold a 21-19 majority.

Del. Mark Levine (D-Alexandria), an outgoing delegate who sponsored legislation banning guns on Capitol Square and in state buildings, said the presence of firearms in the General Assembly was designed to intimidate lawmakers. Before Democrats took control of the legislature, concealed-carry holders could bring firearms into the gallery of the House of Delegates and in the hallways of lawmakers’ offices. Levine, who lost simultaneous Democratic primary races for lieutenant governor and the House of Delegates last summer, said he’d required gun owners to leave their firearms with his secretary before entering his office.

“I’m happy to speak with anyone,” Levine said. “I just don’t want to do it at the point of a gun.”

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