RICHMOND, Virginia: Thousands of armed gun-rights activists filled the streets around Virginia's capitol building on Monday (Jan 20) to protest a package of gun-control legislation making its way through the newly Democratic-controlled state legislature.
The Richmond rally began with a festival atmosphere amid heavy security after Governor Ralph Northam banned carrying weapons onto the capitol grounds, anxious to avoid a replay of the violence at a 2017 demonstration by white nationalists in Charlottesville that killed a counter-protester.
That order was sparked by fears that members of white nationalist and militia groups planned to attend the rally - which organisers the Virginia Citizens Defence League organised as a peaceful show of political power.
The FBI earlier in the week arrested three alleged neo-Nazis who it said planned to use the event to spark a race war.
Activists at the rally argued that Virginia was trying to infringe their constitutional right to bear arms and vowed that Monday's event will help citizens understand how quickly they can lose the ability to carry guns, based on who wins at the ballot box.
"What's going on here, if not stopped, will spread to other states," said Teri Horne, who had travelled to Virginia from her home in Texas with her Smith & Wesson rifle and .40-calibre handgun. "They will come for our guns in other states if we don't stop them in Virginia."
Northam, a Democrat, has vowed to push through new gun control laws and is backing a package of eight bills, including universal background checks, a "red flag" law, a ban on assault-style rifles and a limit of one handgun-a-month purchase. It does not call for confiscating guns currently legally owned.
It is not his first attempt at that target. He called a special legislative session last year after the massacre of 12 people in Virginia Beach, but the Republicans who then controlled the legislature ended the meeting without a vote.
State Democratic leaders and activists believe that move contributed to the November victories that gave them control of both chambers.
T-SHIRTS AND TRUMP
By late morning, there were no reports of violence, according to the Capitol Police, and no confrontations seen at the rally - belying fears that the gathering could spark bloodshed.
Many in the crowds were dressed in camouflage or tactical gear and carrying weapons as they exchanged pleasantries with others. Some browsed vendors' pro-gun T-shirts and other merchandise, much of it carrying slogans supporting President Donald Trump.
Those wanting to enter Capitol Square to hear the morning's speakers had to pass through a single entrance for security screening, leaving their guns outside.
The president weighed in again on the Virginia situation on Monday.
"The Democrat Party in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia are working hard to take away your 2nd Amendment rights," Trump wrote on Twitter. "This is just the beginning. Don't let it happen, VOTE REPUBLICAN in 2020!"
The Second Amendment of the US Constitution protects the right to keep and bear arms.
People across the United States were focused on the Virginia gun issue, said Philip Van Cleave, leader of the Virginia Citizens Defence League, which is organising Monday's rally.
"They don't want us to fail in stopping this," Van Cleave said on Sunday. "We've gotten huge donations from other states."
Van Cleave has rejected calls for violence, but he has urged tens of thousands of armed supporters from across the United States to be in Richmond to provide security for his group.
A spokesman for the Capitol police said Van Cleave had worked closely with law enforcement on plans for the rally.
"The Virginia election last November was an indictment of guns, and it was not an outlier," said Christian Heyne, who leads legislative efforts at the gun violence prevention group Brady. "Virginia candidates flipped things on their head when they won because of the gun issue, not despite it. That is a fundamental shift."
The state's gun owners responded with a movement to create "sanctuary cities" for gun rights, with local government bodies passing declarations not to enforce new gun laws.
Since the November election, nearly all of Virginia's 95 counties have some form of "sanctuary", a term first used by localities opposed to harsh treatment of illegal immigrants.
Grayson County Sheriff Richard Vaughan, who is from a sanctuary county, held aloft a banner supporting the Second Amendment on a street in front of the capitol.
"Some of these bills being proposed are just unconstitutional and we will not enforce them," Vaughan said. "As a sheriff I am the last line of defence between law abiding gun owners and the politicians who want to take away their rights."
The sanctuary idea has quickly spread across the United States, with over 200 local governments in 16 states passing such measures.