AFP Richmond, US
Several thousand gun rights supporters massed near the Virginia state capitol yesterday for a rally under heavy surveillance and a state of emergency declared by authorities fearing violence by far-right groups.
Dressed in hunting jackets and caps, rally-goers were checked for weapons as they passed through tight security before entering a fenced off area of Richmond’s Capitol Square for the so-called “Lobby Day” event.
Many more gathered in the streets surrounding the Capitol building, some bearing sidearms or long guns, which is permitted outside the designated rally area.
They carried US and Virginia state flags and a huge banner emblazoned with the image of an assault rifle and the legend: “Come and Take It.”
Brooks, a 24-year-old Richmond resident who would not give his full name, came with a group of friends, including one with an AR-15 assault rifle, “to support the Second Amendment”.
“It’s our constitutional God-given right to arm ourselves. Having a gun is for peace of mind. It’s a protection thing,” he told AFP.
The rally has been organised by the Virginia Citizens Defence League (VCDL), which opposes gun control laws proposed by state Democrats, who control the Virginia government.
The VCDL has condemned what it considers a breach of the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, which states that “the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed”.
The amendment has proved controversial over the years and has been subject to many different interpretations.
The Supreme Court has ruled that individuals have the right to keep firearms in their households, but left it to state governments to determine how the weapons could be transported.
President Donald Trump, a major ally of the pro-gun lobby, sent words of encouragement to the protesters via Twitter.
“The Democrat Party in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia are working hard to take away your 2nd Amendment rights,” he said. “This is just the beginning. Don’t let it happen, VOTE REPUBLICAN in 2020!”
Many of those massing near Capitol Square wore “Trump 2020” or “Make America Great Again” hats in support of the conservative president.
Some chanted “four more years” or “USA, USA”.
Richmond was a capital of the pro-slavery Confederacy, and Virginia has traditionally leaned conservative.
But the state, which borders the capital Washington, flipped in November and passed into Democratic hands.
State Democrats promised to tackle what they considered the laxity surrounding firearms carrying laws, particularly after a May 2019 shooting in Virginia Beach that left 12 dead.
The new laws under consideration would prohibit magazines with more than 10 rounds, the purchase of more than one weapon per month, and permit judges to seize weapons from individuals deemed dangerous.
A draft ban on the sale of semi-automatic rifles, however, has been abandoned.
A backlash to the restrictions has spread throughout the state, and more than 100 counties and localities have declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries, threatening not to apply the new laws.
Security around the Capitol square has been increased, and authorities have arranged for extra police reinforcements to prevent any misconduct, as several far-right and paramilitary groups have said they would attend.
At the end of last week, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) arrested seven alleged members of the white extremist group “The Base” suspected of trying to create trouble at the rally.
Democratic Governor Ralph Northam on Wednesday declared a state of emergency for the rally site, which has been in effect since Friday and will continue through this evening.
Carrying firearms, normally allowed in the streets, is prohibited, as are dangerous objects such as baseball bats and chains.
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