‘I’m just trying to get on TV:’ Gun rally draws fringe groups, lots of media to Richmond

‘I’m just trying to get on TV:’ Gun rally draws fringe groups, lots of media to Richmond
Men walk down Main Street with firearms during a pro-gun rally in Richmond on Monday, Jan. 18, 2021. A sign warns that guns are banned at demonstrations. (Source: Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

As each new armed group arrived in downtown Richmond Monday, they were greeted by a swarm of cameras and interviewers asking why they had come out to stand near the Capitol with their guns.

“I’m just trying to get on TV,” said one young man wearing camouflage, drawing laughs from his group of about five armed associates. “Joke’s on you guys.”

One year after more than 20,000 gun enthusiasts swarmed Richmond to protest new gun laws, Monday’s sequel was smaller and stranger.

After being denied a permit to rally on the Capitol grounds, the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League asked its supporters to participate in a vehicular caravan through the city. But several disparate groups, including members of the anti-government Boogaloo movement, the Proud Boys and the Black Panthers, demonstrated on foot around the locked-down Capitol building.

Many were carrying firearms. But there appeared to be no confrontations with police, despite the passage of a new city law last year meant to allow authorities to ban guns at political demonstrations and other public events.

With tensions high following the right-wing riot at the U.S. Capitol earlier this month, Virginia officials took several precautions, including shutting down the grounds of the state Capitol, putting up fencing and canceling permits for other groups planning events. The VCDL has been holding its annual Lobby Day event for decades, but other interest groups, including advocates for gun control, typically hold events with policymakers on the same day.

The prospect of potential violence tied to President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration Wednesday has added to security concerns in many state capitals.

Since last year’s massive rally, the city of Richmond passed a new gun-control ordinance allowing guns to be banned in city buildings, parks and at political rallies in public spaces. That law applies to planned gatherings for which the city has issued a permit, as well as more impromptu events “that would otherwise require a permit.”

Last August, Mayor Levar Stoney retweeted a video of a militia march in Richmond, using it as an example of why the new law was needed.

“You don’t need to brandish a deadly weapon to make a point,” Stoney said.

That ordinance was made possible by legislation the General Assembly passed last year. The state law requires local officials to post signs warning that guns are prohibited in certain areas. Richmond did that for Monday’s event, but the signs didn’t appear to make much of a difference in how law enforcement handled the presence of armed demonstrators.

Mike Dunn, a self-styled Boogaloo leader who has appeared at several protests and rallies in Virginia over the last year, said he and his group of nine had come to Richmond Monday to intentionally and “proudly” violate that law. Dunn’s armed group stood in a line next to the Capitol directly across from police.

The Virginia Mercury is a new, nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization covering Virginia government and policy.