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Security tight in Virginia’s state capital as gun-rights rally gets underway

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(CNN) — A gun-rights rally in Virginia’s state capital kicked off Monday morning amid heavy security as authorities look to prevent the kind of violence that took place in nearby Charlottesville three years ago.

Thousands of gun-rights advocates plan to descend on Richmond for “Lobby Day” to oppose legislation that would restrict access to firearms in the state. The commonwealth is bracing for the potential of extremist and white nationalist groups to disrupt the peaceful demonstrations with violence and riots, and the state’s Democratic governor, Ralph Northam, declared a temporary state of emergency last week to ban open and concealed firearms and other weapons from the state capitol grounds.

The large crowd was peaceful as of early Monday morning. People began lining up around 6 a.m. ET to go through security, an hour before gates to the capitol grounds were opened. Security is very thorough, with officers going through bags and making people remove their jackets to be searched, despite the frigid temperatures. Law enforcement is confiscating items like lighters as people pass into the secured area.

In addition to the people on the capitol grounds, there is a large crowd outside the fenced area, which is not under the ban on weapons and is an open carry area. They were chanting “Northam out” and appeared to outnumber the group on the capitol grounds. There is a heavy police presence among this crowd, and law enforcement can also be seen on the rooftops, providing extra security to the area.

“There might be far-right and far-left groups that might be out here today, but the vast majority of the message is ‘guns save lives’ and we believe in the 2nd Amendment,” Sean Restatter, 22, told CNN on the capitol grounds.

Manny Vega of Richmond, who was outside the secured area, said he and his fellow protesters were “here to represent every citizen here that wants to keep the right to bear arms.”

Concerns about threats

According to Northam, law enforcement had learned of credible threats of violence surrounding Monday’s rally, made from mainstream and alternative dark web channels used by violent groups and white nationalists outside of Virginia.

That led the Democratic governor to issue a temporary state of emergency last week through Tuesday, banning open and concealed firearms and other weapons from the state capitol grounds.

When announcing the ban on Wednesday, Northam said he hoped to prevent incidents like the violence that erupted three years ago at the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, which left one counter protester dead and several others injured.

On Thursday, the FBI arrested three alleged members of a white supremacist group, including two men accused of possessing a machine gun, over 1,000 rounds of ammunition and body armor parts.

Virginia House Republican Leader Todd Gilbert said in a statement Saturday that despite differences with the Democrats, both groups are “united in opposition to any threats of violence or civil unrest from any quarter” and that 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.”

Right to gun ownership for ‘law abiding citizens’

The gun rights group — the Virginia Citizens Defense League — is organizing protests on so-called Lobby Day say their demonstrations will be peaceful and intend to draw attention to “Second Amendment sanctuaries,” or what they refer to as localities that vow not to enforce “unconstitutional” gun laws.

One of the scheduled speakers invited by VCDL includes Stephen Willeford, the man who shot and chased the shooter in the Sutherland Springs, Texas, church massacre in 2017.

The group’s president, Philip Van Cleave, previously told CNN that they’ve been attending Lobby Day since 2003 to advocate for guns rights by “law abiding citizens,” and the “grassroots” effort hasn’t had any incidents of violence.

Northam’s executive order was quickly challenged in court by VCDL, the Gun Owners of America and three private individuals, who argued that the ban violated their rights under the First and Second Amendments. A judge upheld the governor’s temporary ban on Thursday, leading them to file an appeal with Virginia’s Supreme Court. On Friday, the Supreme Court of Virginia refused their petition, leaving Northam’s ban in effect.

Following a mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building last year, Northam called for a special session to debate gun control, but it was adjourned by Republicans without action.

But since winning control of the state legislature in November, Democrats have more successfully advanced gun control measures in the 2020 legislative session.

The Virginia Senate, along party lines, approved several gun measures last week, including background checks for private firearm transfers, limiting gun purchases to one handgun a month and allowing localities to ban firearms in public during a permitted event.

The bills now head to the Virginia House of Delegates.

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