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Gun Control Advocates Counter Pro-Gun Richmond Rally, Lobbying for Regulation and Calling for Nonviolence

"We're advocating today, and everyday, honoring Martin Luther King's legacy with actions that would have been impossible if not for his dedication to justice and nonviolent protest."

Young gun control advocates spent Sunday night at the Virginia Capitol in the offices of two Democratic Virginia lawmakers, who offered the space so they wouldn't have to walk through the pro-gun rally taking place in Richmond Monday. (Photo: @Eve_Levenson/Twitter)

Gun control and anti-racism advocates arrived in Richmond, Virginia Monday to challenge the rally held by an estimated 15,000 pro-gun people from all over the country with the counter-protesters applauding recent firearm regulations passed in the state legislature.

Young advocates representing March for Our Lives, the national grassroots group started by survivors of the school shooting in Parkland, Florida in 2018, arrived in the city on Sunday and spent the night in the offices of Delegates Chris Hurst and Dan Helmer, both Democratic members of the state House of Delegates who offered the accomodations so the group wouldn't have to walk through Monday's rally.

The young activists spent the day lobbying lawmakers to support gun control legislation.

Organized by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, the pro-gun rally drew thousands of people from across the country, with white supremacists and members of anti-government militias warning over the weekend that they would attend.

As Common Dreams reported last week, Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam declared a temporary state of emergency for Richmond lasting until Tuesday and banned the carrying of weapons on the Capitol ground during the rally.

Since Virginia does not generally prohibit the open carrying of firearms, attendees congregated with guns in the streets outside the perimeter Northam set.

Pulse Nightclub shooting survivor Brandon Wolf posted to Twitter a photo of the March for Our Lives advocates alongside one of a heavily armed rally-goer.

"Don't worry, sir," he tweeted. "They're fighting to keep you safe too."

The rally was organized in response to three gun control bills the state Senate passed last week, which could be passed by the House of Delegates as soon as this week. Both chambers of Virginia's legislature are controlled by the Democrats following November's elections.

The bills include:

  • S.B. 35, which would authorizes local governments to prohibit firearms in public spaces;
  • S.B. 69, which would rohibits anyone who is not a licensed firearms dealer from buying more than one handgun within a 30-day period; 
  • and S.B. 70, which would require background checks for all gun sales and transfers and would direct state police to set up a background check system through licensed firearms dealers.

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Since Democrats won control of the state government in November, more than 100 towns in Virginia have symbolically declared themselves "Second Amendment Sanctuaries," aiming to defy any new gun control regulations. One of the rally speakers on Monday was a county sheriff who last month pledged to "deputize" gun owners if lawmakers continue to push gun control measures.

Last week, President Donald Trump implicitly endorsed the rally with a tweet telling Virginians, "Your Second Amendment is under very serious attack in the great Commonwealth of Virginia. That's what happens when you vote for Democrats, they will take your guns away."

At the rally on Monday, attendees were heard chanting, "No registration! No confiscation!"—suggesting opposition to one gun control measure which 76% of Americans support, according to Giffords Law Center, and to one that anti-gun control groups have "baselessly" warned will soon be proposed, tweeted Mom's Demand Action founder Shannon Watts.

During the gun rights rally, volunteers with Moms Demand Action held phone-banking events, calling voters across Virginia to urge them to pressure their representatives to support the new legislation.

Journalist Andrew Kimmel tweeted a video of the non-violent group Refuse Fascism speaking out against the Trump administration and gun violence at the rally, with attendees chanting, "USA! USA!" at them.

The rally forced Richmond officials to cancel the city's Martin Luther King Jr. Day vigil for the first time in 28 years, leading to condemnation from anti-racism advocates.

Guardian reporter Lois Beckett pointed out that only a small group of police officers appeared to be present at the rally, compared with many demonstrations attended by unarmed protesters in recent years where police have had a heavy presence.

The police also did not appear to enforce a Virginia state law mandating that people at public gatherings aren't permitted to cover their faces.

Aubrey "Japharii" Jones, president of a local Black Lives Matter group who protested the rally's message, said he believed a group of thousands of armed black Americans would be treated very differently by the Richmond police.

"I think there'd be a much different approach with law enforcement," Jones said. "I think they'd be out here with the shields and the dogs... We've held peace marches and they showed up to our peace marches with armored trucks and things of that nature, and that was a peace march. So if they had this coming out with the African-American community I'm pretty sure it would have been a lot different, a much more hostile environment."

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