RICHMOND, Va.—Thousands of gun activists, many of them heavily armed and in full military gear, rallied around Virginia’s heavily secured state capitol complex on Monday to protest new gun-control proposals—amid a four-day state of emergency declared by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam.
Thousands of people entered the security perimeter around the state capitol, where Northam had banned guns in an executive order, fearing violence. But thousands of others rallied on nearby streets that didn’t fall under the emergency order, many of them carrying assault rifles and wearing tactical gear. Members of the Three Percenter and Oath Keepers militias marched in the streets with their weapons, while other rally-goers cheered one man carrying a large sniper rifle with an orange “Guns Save Lives” sticker affixed to its magazine.
The rally drew a number of fringe right-wing figures, including members of the all-male Proud Boys, and Joey Gibson, a right-wing personality in the Pacific Northwest who faces a riot charge in Portland.
Far-right conspiracy theorist Alex Jones cruised the streets of Richmond with a megaphone and an armored truck. Shouting from his vehicle, deemed his “battle tank,” the radio host reportedly declared: “We are here in Virginia at the capital in defiance of the globalist tyranny and their attempts to trigger a civil war.”
The pro-gun rally from the Virginia Citizens Defense League was initially tied to Lobby Day, an annual event where gun-control opponents and supporters lobby state lawmakers.
But with the Virginia government now in unified Democratic control for the first time in 27 years and expected to pass mandatory background checks and monthly caps on gun purchases, the annual event took on national import for Second Amendment activists as well as fringe far-right groups.
Prominent militia figures began speculating that the event would set off the “boogaloo”—far-right internet slang for a new civil war. The Base, a neo-Nazi group, allegedly made plans for a shooting at the event before members of the group were arrested last week.
Hoax stories claiming that Northam planned to turn off the power grid or call in the United Nations to disarm Virginians further fueled tensions ahead of the rally. Republican state Sen. Amanda Chase claimed the event was a “set up” meant to embarrass gun owners and potentially lead to their arrests.
“A lot of us constitutionalists feel that the Virginia bills set the stage for similar bills,” said Jennifer Bailey, a militia activist who organized a “State of the Militia” dinner on Sunday night.
While the event wasn’t an official Donald Trump rally, paraphernalia supporting the president was bountiful. Shirt vendors sold tees with messages like “God, Guns, and Trump,” or “Border Wall Construction Crew.” An RV parked outside the entrance to the capitol featured a poster imagining Trump as Rambo. Also spotted in the crowds was a flag in support of QAnon, a bonkers pro-Trump conspiracy theory.
While gun-control opponents filled the streets, a few advocates for stricter gun laws showed up after calling off their own event. Virginia resident Thomas Freeman was one of the few visible gun-control advocates in the crowd. Holding up a “Gun Laws Save Lives” sign, he said he felt he had to come to the event after other gun-control activists cancelled because of fears about violence.
“We had an election, guns were on the ballot, guns lost,” Freeman declared.