Thousands of people affiliated with gun-rights groups and militias from across the country descended on Richmond, Va., Monday for a rally that some feared could turn violent, prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency.
But no violent incidents or arrests were reported by the time the rally concluded early Monday afternoon.
Among the groups that attended were national organizations that have chapters in Pennsylvania, including the PA Light Foot Militia, a group whose leader was banned from rallying with weapons in Charlottesville after the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally and had said there was “enormous potential for something to go wrong" at Monday’s event. The group indicated on Facebook that it wanted to “stand with the people of Virginia and our allied units in various states against the draconian gun legislation being proposed by the current sitting legislature.”
The annual rally was billed as a peaceful gathering, but attracted more attention this year as the Virginia legislature, which was flipped by Democrats in November, considers new gun control laws. Virginia saw a mass shooting last year in Virginia Beach that killed 12.
Cory Kepner of Carbon County, a member of the Pennsylvania-based group Firearm Owners Against Crime, attended the rally to observe and help “be a diffuser” if conflict arose. But the crowd was friendly and calm, with “a fantastic job” from the heavy police presence, he said.
“We were all expecting antifa and all kinds of problems, and we didn’t see anything like that, which was a real surprise,” said Kepner, 31. “It was extremely peaceful. I think people went completely out of their way to make sure it stayed that way.”
What was Monday’s rally?
The events in Richmond were organized by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a gun-rights organization that holds an annual Lobby Day at the capitol. The last few years have fallen on Martin Luther King Day.
The rally was expected to draw more than state gun-rights figures this year. Far-right personalities and white nationalists with large internet followings, some of whom considered themselves organizers of the deadly Charlottesville rally in 2017, pledged to attend.
The governor promised to sign three bills into law: one to require background checks for any firearm transfer, one to allow municipalities to ban firearms in governmental buildings and public parks or streets, and one to limit purchases of handguns to one per month.
(In Pennsylvania, little has been passed by the state legislature in the way of gun control in recent years, though recent mass shootings — and everyday gun violence in Philadelphia and other areas — inspired debate in the Statehouse. A law aiming to disarm domestic abusers took effect last year, though it largely hasn’t been enforced in Philadelphia.)
Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam had declared a state of emergency ahead of the expected demonstrations, citing “credible threats of violence surrounding the event, along with white nationalist rhetoric and plans by out-of-state militia groups to attend.” That emergency declaration allowed officials to ban all weapons from Capitol grounds and allotted additional resources for law enforcement agencies.
Federal authorities last week arrested six members of a violent white supremacist group called “the Base," at least three of whom are accused of plotting to kill antifascist activists.
Gun-control groups denounced the rally. Pennsylvania’s largest such group, CeaseFirePA, tweeted, “#IStandWithVirginia because we will not cower to those with hate in their hearts. We will rise above bigotry and will never step back.”
The Pa. groups that attended
Roughly 6,000 rally-goers passed through security, according to the Washington Post, and included members of militias, or groups of people, usually armed, who meet and train with the stated goal of defending the Constitution and rising up should the government violate it. These militia group leaders included Christian Yingling, the PA Light Foot Militia commanding officer who runs a chapter based out of Latrobe. (According to the group’s website, there are also chapters based in New Bethlehem, Reading, Wilkes-Barre, and Towanda, as well as Cape May and Morristown, N.J.)
Yingling posted a statement on Facebook saying Northam was wrongly “attempting to paint a picture similar to what we saw in Charlottesville," where he led a militia of about 30 people. He wrote that the group didn’t plan “to cause violence or harm in any way” and sought only to “aid our communities and others in securing their rights as guaranteed to them by our Forefathers.”
Yingling told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2017 that he got involved with the militia group because of his affinity for Alex Jones, the InfoWars founder and far-right conspiracy theorist who arrived at the rally in Richmond on Monday.
The rally included chants of “USA!,” “You don’t represent us,” and “You work for us,” said Kepner, the Carbon County gun owner. He followed an armed militia as it marched through the streets and said the blocks surrounding the Capitol were packed. People were livestreaming and broadcasting to YouTube, he said.
“I’ve been to a lot of gun rallies over the years… and this is probably the largest thing I personally have seen,” he said. “Obviously people were frustrated and upset with the legislation, but it was very friendly amongst each other, while the message was, ‘We will not comply.’”
Kim Stolfer of Allegheny County, head of Firearm Owners Against Crime, said as many as 20 of his members were in Richmond attending the rally.
“As an organization, we didn’t underwrite it, if you will, but we told everybody that if they wanted to go, we thought it would be a good idea to support our fellow citizens in Virginia defending the right to bear arms,” Stolfer said. “Many of our members would be there if it was something like the Fourth Amendment or the Fifth Amendment or the First Amendment, because we believe in the Bill of Rights.”
Stolfer said he believed Virginia’s proposed gun laws were unconstitutional and would fail. He cited rallies his group has held in Harrisburg, saying, “We’re peaceful, and the same thing’s … going to happen” in Richmond.
“Everything [Northam] is doing in Virginia is an affront to not only the legislative process but also the rights of citizens,” Stolfer said. “His vitriol is pushing everybody to view the people rallying in Richmond right now as a threat to the safety of citizens. … Believers in the Second Amendment are not the enemy.”
National groups with Pa. ties were there, too
While the National Rifle Association has criticized the legislation being considered in Virginia, the group distanced itself from the rally. However, Gun Owners of America, a national gun-rights organization to the right of the NRA, urged its members to attend.
Other militias and far-right groups, like the Oath Keepers and the Three Percenters, both national organizations with local chapters, encouraged their membership to attend.
The Oath Keepers are part of what experts call the “patriot movement” and are one of the nation’s largest antigovernment groups. Much of their recruitment is focused on military — both current and former soldiers — and police. While the Pennsylvania chapter of the Oath Keepers didn’t respond to a request for comment, the group posted about the rally on Instagram two days ago, sharing a meme poking fun at Northam’s state of emergency declaration.
The Three Percenters, which has state chapters in Pennsylvania and New Jersey, don’t consider themselves to be a militia, but rather a group of “patriotic citizens who love their country, their freedoms, and their liberty.” However, experts have deemed the Three Percenters (named after their belief that only 3% of colonists fought the British during the Revolution) antigovernment extremists part of the militia movement.