Thousands of gun owners and gun rights supporters gathered Monday at Virginia’s Capitol for a “peaceful day to address our Legislature” that appeared to generate none of the violence feared by some state leaders.
Many demonstrators, opposed to proposed gun restrictions, openly displayed military-style semiautomatic rifles. Other wore orange “Guns save lives” stickers as the crowd chanted “USA” and sang the national anthem. Signs read “Come and take it” and “Second Amendment Sanctuary.”
But despite warnings from Gov. Ralph Northam and law enforcement that out-of-state hate groups and militias may incite violence, the protest did not grow heated. Police estimated the size of the crowd at 22,000 – including 6,000 people inside Capitol Square – and only one arrest was reported.
Police said Mikaela E. Beschler, 21, of Richmond, was charged with one felony count of wearing a mask in public after being warned twice before against wearing a bandanna covering her face. Beschler was released on her recognizance.
Demonstrator Matthew French, 40, from Bland, called the rally a success and said he hoped the large, peaceful crowd would help sway legislators.
“The sheer numbers here speaks for itself,” he said. “I hope our legislators will back off. Today was the civil rights march of my life.”
Tom Rohde, 49, of West Point, said he was happy to see no violence.
“You got thousands of guns and not a single bullet fired,” he said.
Earlier, a heavy police presence greeted rally goers calmly lining up to enter the state Capitol, where they had to pass through a security checkpoint.
Connie Stanley, 58, from Aylett, came to the rally with a group of women. She sees owning a gun and the Second Amendment as a security issue. She said where she lives, it could take police too long to respond if she calls 911.
“As a woman, I feel like it’s about protection,” she said.
Northam declared a state of emergency Friday through Tuesday, banning all weapons, including firearms, in the square around the Capitol building. He said law enforcement received “credible” threats of violence from out-of-state hate groups and militias.
At least six suspected members of a violent neo-Nazi group were arrested last week in Maryland and Georgia. Authorities feared three of the men planned to try to incite violence at the rally.
On Monday, law enforcement helicopters buzzed overhead as state, city and Capitol police kept a wary eye on the crowds. Barricades lined the streets and many shops were closed.