The leader of the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League said the group isn’t changing its plans for a Jan. 18 rally in Richmond after right-wing rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol to protest the presidential election.
A year ago, more than 20,000 gun enthusiasts packed the streets around the Virginia Capitol for VCDL’s annual Lobby Day event, a larger-than-normal crowd inspired largely by pro-gun control Democrats winning control of the General Assembly.
Though there were warnings last year’s event could turn violent, there was none of the mayhem seen last week in D.C., where supporters of President Donald Trump attacked police and broke into the Capitol chambers. One U.S. Capitol Police officer died as a result of injuries from the melee, police said, and a Trump supporter was fatally shot by police as she tried to enter a secure area of the building.
A recent FBI memo warned of possible armed protests in all 50 capitals ahead of President-Elect Joe Biden’s inauguration on Jan. 20, according to the Associated Press.
It’s not clear what to expect on Jan. 18 event, but it appears to be the only major event on Virginia law enforcement’s radar.
After being denied a permit to rally on the Virginia Capitol grounds, VCDL has asked supporters to participate in a vehicle caravan in the area. The General Assembly won’t be meeting at the Capitol due to COVID-19 precautions.
In online discussions about the VCDL event, some of the group’s supporters questioned whether it was still wise to proceed in the aftermath of riots at the U.S. Capitol, urging organizers to cancel. They worried the planned format would resemble the “Trump Trains” organized by the president’s most fervent supporters. But other members wrote that canceling could be perceived as giving in to pro-gun control groups.
In an interview, VCDL President Philip Van Cleave seemed firmly in the latter camp.
“What happened in D.C. had nothing whatsoever to do with us,” Van Cleave said, adding there have been “unfortunate” acts of political violence “happening around the country.”
He noted Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency ahead of last year’s event and “nothing happened.”
“I can’t guarantee nothing would happen again if somebody’s determined to cause a problem,” Van Cleave said. “But we can’t stop every time there’s a potential threat. They’ll just keep doing it and we won’t be able to ever have an event again of any sort.”
Van Cleave stressed that VCDL cares about one issue, guns, and he wants rallygoers to stick to that message and be peaceful.
“We’ve got police there,” he said. “Their job is to be on the lookout for trouble. And if there’s trouble, their job is to handle it. That’s what we pay them for.”
The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.