RICHMOND, Va. – Thousands of gun-rights advocates packed the streets around the Virginia Capitol on Monday, bristling with weapons, flags and threats of insurrection but never erupting into the violence authorities had feared.
Armed militias carrying assault-style weapons marched in formation until the crowds grew too thick. Protesters without firearms filed through 17 metal detectors at a single entrance to Capitol Square, where Gov. Ralph Northam had temporarily banned weapons, and cheered fiery speeches about the Second Amendment.
This was the aftershock of last fall's elections, when thousands of Virginia voters gave majorities in the General Assembly to Democrats who promised to enact gun-control laws. The losing side of that equation thundered through this city's streets on Monday. They were joined by self-styled patriots from all over the country, whipped into a near-frenzy by social media calls — including from President Donald Trump — to make Virginia the bulwark against any retreat on gun rights.
Intelligence from law enforcement about outside threats had put Virginia officials on edge and led to a massive police presence. The crackdown also made Northam a symbol of the country's cultural and political divide — as evidenced by harsh signs Monday depicting him as a "tyrant," "radical Ralph" and photoshopped into a Nazi uniform.
"Democrats in the state are demonstrating … unadulterated power without authority," Erich Pratt, senior vice president of Gun Owners of America, thundered in Capitol Square. "No one listening to my voice should ever ... vote for the party of gun control, the party of Nancy Pelosi, Charles Schumer," he said, interrupted by boos at the names of the Democratic leaders.
Inside the white-columned Capitol, the halls were strangely quiet as lawmakers went about their business. Young pages had the day off for safety; there was a skeleton staff, but beefed-up police presence.
Democrats who had met with pro-gun lobbyists Monday morning said they, too, were responding to thousands of fired-up constituents — the voters who put them into office on the promise of stricter gun laws.
Police said about 6,000 people had passed through the checkpoint into Capitol Square. But there were differing estimates on the size of the larger crowd that remained on the streets. Public safety officials said about 16,000 people, based on how many blocks of street and sidewalk were filled, while rally organizers said they believed there were twice that many. Another estimate put the crowd at 22,000.
Authorities reported no major incidents and only a single arrest, of a 21-year-old woman charged with wearing a mask in public.