Recent shootings raise stakes for pro-gun lobbyists in Richmond

Photo for The Washington Post by Ryan M. Kelly
Armed demonstrators join an annual gun rights rally Monday in Richmond.

Gun rights advocates said recent shooting incidents in Virginia only increased their sense of urgency as they descended Monday on the state Capitol in an annual display of civic firepower for the Second Amendment.

Charges that a 6-year-old pupil shot and wounded a Newport News teacher, as well as the deaths of six Chesapeake Walmart employees and three University of Virginia students in separate mass shootings, created a fitting climate for the pro-gun rally, said Phil Van Cleave, head of the Virginia Citizens Defense League.

“Sure it is,” said Van Cleave, who organized the event. “They don’t stop selling cars because there’s a bad accident somewhere. This goes on no matter what.”

Even so, faint hopes of legislative action in a divided General Assembly kept Monday’s event to a bare shadow of the massive pro-gun rally that drew thousands to Richmond in 2020, when Democrats were in control and on the verge of passing gun-control bills. Instead, about a couple hundred people listened to speakers outside the Bell Tower on Capitol Square, while about two dozen people with assault-style weapons and paramilitary gear stood in groups on the streets outside, prohibited by state law from bringing firearms into the square.

“I sympathize with people [affected by mass shootings], I really do,” said a man carrying an AR-15 assault-style rifle who gave his name as Jason B., 35, of Prince Edward County. “However, if I was at a Walmart or a movie theater and something happened and I didn’t have the means to protect those around me, I feel like I’d have blood on my hands.”

Republicans have filed a host of bills this year to undo restrictions passed by Democrats, such as a “red flag” law that allows authorities to confiscate weapons from someone deemed a threat. They say such laws would have done little to prevent the recent incidents.

Democrats have filed measures to control guns more strictly, such as banning assault weapons and requiring people to keep guns locked when children are present.

But not much is likely to happen this year because control of the General Assembly is split: Republicans have a majority in the House of Delegates while Democrats are in the majority in the state Senate, meaning each chamber can block the other’s initiatives.

“You’re not going to see the repeal of all of the laws that have offended us,” Del. Tim Anderson (R-Virginia Beach), a lawyer who also owns a gun-sales business, told the gun rights rally. “But you will see us standing up and stopping more progressive gun control . . . What the session is going to be judged on is not necessarily what we passed but what we stopped.”

Several speakers invoked that stalemate to urge attendees to vote for Republicans this fall, when every seat in both the House and Senate is on the ballot.

“In order to win again and to go . . . forward and become Virginia again, we must keep the House, but now we also need to win back the Senate,” state Sen. Amanda F. Chase (R-Chesterfield) said. Democrats, she added, want to take away “God-given rights” to carry firearms.

“They want us to become what?” Chase challenged the crowd.

“Communists!” someone shouted. “Victims!” others said.

Chase, like several other speakers, cautioned the crowd against voting for just any Republican. John Crump, the Virginia state director of Gun Owners of America, said Republicans who are “anti-gun” should be defeated in primary elections. He called out state Attorney General Jason Miyares, who Crump said has allowed state lawyers to defend a law requiring background checks for firearms purchases.

“Call him and tell him to stop,” Crump urged the crowd.

A spokeswoman for Miyares did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Leon Benjamin, who is running against Democratic state Sen. Jennifer L. McClellan (Richmond) for the 4th District congressional seat left open by the death of Rep. A. Donald McEachin (D), said it was fitting that the VCDL event was taking place on Martin Luther King Jr. Day.

“If he was here today . . . he would be right in the middle of VCDL,” said Benjamin, who is Black. “He would be right here bringing everyone together. This is not a Republican thing, it’s not a Democrat thing – this is a God and country and family and guns thing!”

JaPharii Jones, president of BLM 757, a Black Lives Matter group from Virginia Beach, called on the gun rights movement to be more inclusive of racial minorities and women.

“Women are specifically more vulnerable to attacks such as rape and things like that,” he said after the rally. “And you know, Martin Luther King attempted to get his concealed license a few weeks before he was murdered.”

Jones said that he reached out repeatedly to Van Cleave to be included in this rally and others, but that he had been brushed off.

Asked about Jones’s claim, Van Cleave said, “We don’t really join forces with other groups.”

One block south of the Capitol, on Main Street, a well-armed Trevor Herrin and two friends combined their protest for gun rights with a food drive.

“It’s a hearts-and-minds thing,” said Herrin, 27, a military veteran who is studying international relations at Virginia Peninsula Community College. “A lot of people aren’t gonna be receptive. We had some lady screaming at us earlier about, why do we have to have AK-47s in front of her toddler. We’re not gonna get through to some people. But then other people are gonna be like, ‘These crazy, right-wing, gun-nut extremist types raised however many hundreds of pounds of food and donated it.’ And eventually, it’ll click. They’ll be like, ‘All right, I might not agree with these guys politically, but they’re doing good work in the community.’ “

But for one AK-47-toting advocate – 26-year-old from Hampton who gave his name only as Sasquatch – Monday’s rally was something of an ultimatum about ending gun control. “We are doing our best to play by their [political] system,” he said. “But after a while, it is time to show force, and we are rapidly approaching that.”

Photo for The Washington Post by Ryan M. Kelly
Armed demonstrators, including a man who identified himself as “Sasquatch” with the Virginia Kekoas, stand outside Capitol Square before the start of the rally in Richmond.