Militia groups, gun hardliners, and far-right activists are set to converge on Virginia’s capital in Richmond next week as the state’s new Democratic majority considers legislation that would enact sweeping gun control measures.
The groups are headed for a Jan. 20 rally organized by an anti-gun control group called the Virginia Citizens Defense League.
Organizers picked Jan. 20 to coincide with an annual event, called Lobby Day, at Virginia’s state capitol during which citizens make use of the Martin Luther King Day federal holiday to meet with state legislators and advocate for issues of importance to them.
VCDL President Philip Van Cleave, who appeared in Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Who Is America?” advocating for arming kindergarteners, cautioned in an internal email that members of his group should not show up with rifles. Their “important messages,” he wrote, would “inevitably get lost as the press rushes to get pictures of anyone carrying an AR or AK.”
“The stories then become about the rifle, not VCDL’s agenda,” the email from the group reads.
But despite warnings by event organizers, the rally has attracted the attention of controversial groups like The Oath Keepers, Three Percenters, and Infowars, which sees Richmond’s legislative agenda as a prelude for the U.N.’s takeover of Old Dominion.
Three Percent Security Force founder Chris Hill described to TPM his plans to bring his group to the event as “using the Second Amendment to defend the First Amendment.”
“My rifle is not a weapon,” he added. “It’s a sign, it’s just like me holding up a piece of cardboard that says: shall not be infringed. That rifle says I’m a free man.”
Hill said that the Virginia rally was enticing in part because it’s the “one state that is standing up against these red flag laws.”
So-called “red flag” laws, which empower judges to order the confiscation of guns from those deemed an “extreme risk,” have been passed in several states in recent years, but none with Virginia’s history of gun ownership or red-tinged political map.
One such measure was approved by a Virginia Senate’s Judiciary Committee on Monday. Other gun control measures were also approved by the committee, including a limit on purchasing one handgun per month per person, as well as a mandatory background check law.
In response, anti-gun control activists in the state are also preparing to rally at the state’s capital on Jan. 20. Many worry the scene could get out of control.
The fight has been brewing for months.
After Democrats won control of the state’s legislature in November, dozens of counties and municipalities across the state have passed resolutions dubbing themselves “Second Amendment sanctuary cities” — that is, local governments that refuse to enforce the new gun laws headed their way from Richmond.
“Virginia is the one state that’s making the stand,” Hill said. “That’s why we’re going to be there to rally up.”
Some local governments have even promoted militia activity to enforce that “sanctuary” status, bringing an unusual sheen of legitimacy to a movement that’s ballooned nationwide in recent years, but has mostly stayed out of official legislative minutes.
Culpeper County Sheriff Scott Jenkins, for example, vowed to “deputize thousands of our law-abiding citizens to protect their constitutional right to own firearms” should the legislature approve the new gun measures.
And Tazewell County passed a militia resolution to accompany its “Second Amendment Sanctuary” status, which the county hopes says adds legal protection to local gun owners against new state laws.
Tazewell Sheriff Brian Hieatt said the resolution “gives us some teeth to be able to act and do something if a law comes out dealing with firearms that we see is illegal.”
The Oath Keepers, a nationwide group largely comprised of former law enforcement officials and soldiers, said on New Year’s Eve that it was sending members to Virginia to “train armed posses and militia” and urged its members to lobby other Virginia counties to follow Tazewell’s example.
And in a militia community where tough talk is practically an art form, the genre’s masters are hard at work.
“You better get in shape, and you better train, and you better coordinate, and you better plan, and you better link up, and you better do all these things,” Bill “K2” Hartwell, wearing a cap with the logo of the Three Percent militia movement, said in a Facebook video last month.
“I pray it doesn’t come to this, but it’s looking like it’s going to,” he said. “January 20th’s going to be a pivotal moment.”
Hartwell paused, dramatically, then informed his viewers that he’d heard projected attendance at the lobbying day was “close to a million… people.” Meanwhile, the VCDL told the state attendance could reach 50,000 to 100,000, The Washington Post reported.
The Southern Poverty Law Center describes both the Oath Keepers and Hill’s Three Percenter group as radical anti-government extremists.
Hill disputed that characterization, calling the SPLC a “scam” while adding that, were the gun control legislation to pass in Virginia, “anarchy could ensue.”
“You just made ninety percent of the law abiding citizens in the State of Virginia outlaws, nothing good is going to come from that,” he said.
Hill told TPM that if the state’s proposed “red flag” law were to be passed, “you have a redress to tell the government, ‘you’re overstepping your constitutional authority.’ If civil war or revolutionary war were to follow, the people would be justified in doing that.”
But the radicalism of some attendees has already made waves in the event’s planning.
One poster in the Facebook group for the event pleaded with organizers to ensure that attendees lobby for their “right to bear arms in a RESPECTFUL and PEACEFUL way.”
“Do not give them reason to label all of us as unevolved gun-waving morons,” the commenter wrote.
The VCDL replied, saying that there would be “THOUSANDS of law abiding, gun owning people from all walks of life at the Capitol on January 20th.”
“If anybody does anything to cause trouble I can see it being shut down before it has a chance to start,” organizers added.
A Shift In Power
The new activity on guns in Virginia reflects a new political reality, unheard of for the past generation: unified Democratic control.
Both chambers of Virginia’s legislature as well as the governor’s mansion are now controlled by Democrats, a first in 27 years. And Democrats ran in large part on changing state policies on guns.
If they’re successful, it will represent a fundamental shift in Virginia politics. In July, after a mass shooting in Virginia left 12 victims dead, Gov. Ralph Northam (D) called a special legislative session to push gun reform. It ended after 90 minutes — Republicans weren’t willing to consider any proposed legislation.
At the time, members of various militias stood outside the Capitol Building, decked out in camouflage and holding assault rifles opposite volunteers from gun reform groups like Moms Demand Action. When the state’s attorney general wrote later that the militiamen may have been illegally impersonating law enforcement, Hartwell, who’d attended the show of force, likened himself to a Jew in Nazi Germany.