By SARAH RANKIN, Associated Press
RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — State officials and U.S. hate-monitoring groups are warning about the potential for violence ahead of a gun-rights rally in Virginia that’s expected to draw a mix of militias, firearms advocates and White supremacists to Richmond.
Citing credible threats of violence, Gov. Ralph Northam declared a temporary state of emergency days ahead of Monday’s rally, banning all weapons, including guns, from Capitol Square.
Virginia’s solicitor general last week said law enforcement had identified “credible evidence” armed out-of-state groups planned to come to Virginia with the possible intention of participating in a “violent insurrection.”
The Virginia state Capitol building is surrounded by fencing, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020 in Richmond, Va., in preparation for Monday’s rally by gun rights advocates. Gun-rights groups are asking a judge to block the Virginia governor’s ban on firearms at a massive pro-gun rally scheduled for next week. Gov. Ralph Northam on Wednesday, Jan. 15, announced a state of emergency and banned all weapons from the rally at the Capitol. (Dean Hoffmeyer/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)
Online, threats of violence have been “rampant” among anti-government and far-right groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center, which tracks White supremacists and other extremists. Conspiracy theories and other misinformation have also proliferated.
Organizers of an annual vigil at the Capitol for the victims of gun violence said Friday they have canceled their event this year because of fears of “armed insurrectionists.”
Meanwhile, the gun-rights group that has planned the event is urging peace.
A look at some of the groups that are participating:
Virginia Citizens Defense League
The Virginia Citizens Defense League, an influential grassroots gun-rights organization with a long record in the state, has been the leading force behind Monday’s rally.
Each year on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday the group holds a lobby day, typically attended by several hundred gun enthusiasts who rally and meet with lawmakers to discuss legislation.
But this year’s event is expected to draw an enormous crowd.
The VCDL has donated over $200,000 to state lawmakers since 2002, records show. The group has emphasized the rally is intended to be peaceful and urged members not to bring long guns, saying they would be a “distraction.”
“The eyes of the nation and the world are on Virginia and VCDL right now and we must show them that gun owners are not the problem,” the group wrote in a recent email to its members.
The group’s president, Philip Van Cleave, has been in the national spotlight before. In 2018, Van Cleave was duped into participating in Sacha Baron Cohen’s ambush chat show, where he advocated for arming children.
Gun Owners of America
The influential pro-gun group Gun Owners of America describes itself as the only “no-compromise” gun lobby in Washington and enjoys a loyal following.
Founded in 1975 by a California state lawmaker, Gun Owners of America joined the VCDL to seek an injunction against enforcement of Gov. Ralph Northam’s executive order banning guns from the Capitol Square. The state Supreme Court upheld the ban late Friday.
On its website, the group has urged its members to attend Monday’s rally.
The National Rifle Association, the country’s best known gun-rights organization, has distanced itself from Monday’s rally and instead held a lobby day last week.
Hundreds of people attended the event, where the NRA handed out unloaded 30-round gun magazines. A spokeswoman for the group headquartered in northern Virginia said the magazines were meant as a “morale booster” for the NRA members who showed up to urge lawmakers to reject the gun control measures proposed by Northam and Democratic lawmakers.
Former U.S. Army paratrooper Stewart Rhodes formed The Oath Keepers in 2009, and the group has become one of the nation’s largest anti-government organizations, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
In 2014, Oath Keeper members joined an armed standoff between federal officials and Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy over grazing rights on government land.
Later that year and in 2015, members patrolled the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, amid protests over the police killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown. They wore camouflage body armor and openly carried rifles.
The group urged its members in a post on its website to attend Monday’s rally and said it was sending trainers to Virginia to organize and train “armed posses and militia.”
“It is NOT just about one day at a rally. It’s about organizing and training up Virginians in each town and county to make their Second Amendment Sanctuary Counties truly strong, united, and capable of actually defending their lives, liberty, and property,” the group’s website says.
Three Percenter Movement
The Three Percenters are a loosely organized movement that formed in 2008, according to the Anti-Defamation League, the Jewish civil rights organization that tracks extremist groups.
On its website, the right-wing group says it isn’t an anti-government militia but “we will defend ourselves when necessary.”
The Three Percenters derives its name from the belief that just 3% of the colonists rose up to fight the British. They have vowed to resist any government that infringes on the U.S. Constitution.
The Oregon Three Percenters joined an armed takeover of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon in 2016. Dozens of people occupied the remote refuge for more than a month to protest federal control of Western lands. The group also took part in a violent right-wing rally in Portland last year.
J.J. MacNab, a fellow at the Program on Extremism at George Washington University, said she didn’t expect large numbers of White supremacists. But MacNab said she thinks those who do attend will try to capitalize on the large expected crowd for a moment in the limelight.
“It’s going to be a big event — they want to be part of it. They’re desperate to do Charlottesville 2.0,” she said, referring to the 2017 rally that descended into violence.
Last week, authorities arrested six men they linked to a violent White supremacist group known as The Base. At least three of the men were planning to attend the rally in Richmond according to an official who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss an active investigation.
Associated Press writers Denise Lavoie, Michael Kunzelman and Mike Balsamo contributed to this report.