RICHMOND, Va.— As most Americans are celebrating Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday, residents in Virginia’s capitol are bracing for a massive gun rights rally at the statehouse. Here’s what you need to know before the demonstration:
Every year on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the Virginia Citizens Defense League holds a “Lobby Day” event at the state Capitol, where they advocate for gun rights. The demonstration usually nets a few hundred attendees. But this year’s event is expected to swell because the Democrat-controlled Legislature is proposing several gun control reforms, including limiting handgun purchases and requiring background checks.
The Defense League says they want a “peaceful event,” but law enforcement, the governor and local residents fear violence will erupt as white nationalists and far-right militias from throughout the country are expected to attend. President Donald Trump’s tweet Friday, saying “Your 2nd Amendment is under very serious attack in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia,” was seen by some as a call to join Monday’s rally.
On Thursday, three members of a neo-Nazi group called The Base, which advocates for a white ethno-state, were arrested on the East Coast, and law enforcement officials said the trio had been planning to attend the rally. The next day, officials announced the arrests of three men from Georgia and one from Wisconsin, all allegedly members of The Base.
The Base, formed about two years ago, says it is neither a political organization nor a paramilitary group and has no clear formal leadership.
Virignia Citizens Defense League President Philip Van Cleave, a self-proclaimed “extremist,” said he believes the Nevada-based, far-right Oath Keepers, will be in attendance, according to The Associated Press. On far-right corners of the internet, some have said the rally will accelerate a “race war.”
Organizers and officials estimate thousands will attend the morning rally. As of Sunday, no major counterprotest had been planned, and many anti-fascist groups were encouraging members to stay away from the rally at Capitol Square in downtown Richmond.
Gun safety groups also canceled their annual MLK Day vigil at the Capitol, citing “ongoing, credible threats to public safety that have been promoted and encouraged by gun extremists.” The vigil, which has been hosted for the last 28 years, was supposed to begin after the gun rights rally.
How is the city preparing?
Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat, declared a state of emergency Wednesday in anticipation of the event, citing “credible intelligence” of violence. In his executive order, Northam temporarily banned guns and other weapons from the Capitol grounds, where the rally will take place. The state Supreme Court struck down the event organizers’ challenge to the governor’s order.
The FAA issued a flight restriction over the Capitol after Northam said weaponized drones could be deployed Monday. For added security, officials fenced off the Capitol, limited the number of entrances and exits into the area and closed multiple roads.
State, capitol, and city police, which plan to be out in full force, will search everyone entering Capitol Square. Law enforcement officials said they are monitoring the internet to learn who may be attending and what is being planned.
How are residents feeling?
Residents who spoke to NBC News over the weekend expressed concerns about the rally, with many saying they were planning to avoid Capitol Square. Some feared a repeat of the violence that unfolded at the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville in 2017.
Many shops in the area will be closed for the day, and Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond sent an alert to students, asking them to stay vigilant. Students told NBC News they will avoid downtown, and some professors spent class time Friday pleading with them not to attend the rally.
Over the weekend, local faith leaders called for a city-wide day of prayer, asking people to pray for the city and “speak words of peace from Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.”
Some prominent supporters of the 2nd Amendment right to bear arms have called for peace, including Virginia House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert.
“Any group that comes to Richmond to spread white supremacist garbage, or any other form of hate, violence, or civil unrest isn’t welcome here,” he said in a statement Saturday.
“Thousands of law-abiding Virginians simply want to have their voices heard at the seat of government.”