RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Tens of thousands of gun enthusiasts from around the country rallied peacefully at the Virginia Capitol on Monday to protest plans by the state's Democratic leadership to pass gun-control legislation — a move that has become a flash point in the national debate over gun violence.
The size of the crowd and the expected participation of white supremacists and fringe militia groups raised fears that the state could see a repeat of the violence that exploded in 2017 in Charlottesville. But the rally concluded uneventfully around noon, and the mood was largely festive, with rally-goers chanting "USA!" and waving signs denouncing Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam.
Many protesters chose not to enter the designated rally zone, where Northam had imposed a temporary weapons ban, and packed surrounding streets, many dressed in tactical gear and camouflage and carrying military-style rifles as they cheered the speakers.
"I love this. This is like the Super Bowl for the Second Amendment right here," said P.J. Hudson, a truck driver from Richmond who carried an AR-15 rifle just outside Capitol Square. He was one of the few African American rally-goers in a crowd that was overwhelmingly white and male, and was frequently stopped and asked to pose for pictures wearing his "Black Guns Matter" sweatshirt.
An estimated 22,000 people attended, according to authorities, who said one woman was arrested on a felony charge of wearing a mask in public.
The protesters came out despite the frigid temperature to send a message to legislators, they said.
"The government doesn't run us, we run the government," said Kem Regik, a 20-year-old private security officer from northern Virginia who brought a white flag with a picture of a rifle captioned, "Come and take it."
Northam was a focus of the protesters’ wrath. One poster showed his face superimposed on Adolf Hitler's body.
The governor said in a statement he was "thankful" the day passed peacefully and that "he will continue to listen to the voices" of Virginians while doing everything in his power "to keep our commonwealth safe."
"The issues before us evoke strong emotions, and progress is often difficult," Northam said.
Democratic lawmakers said the rally would not affect their plans to pass gun-control measures, including universal background checks and a one-handgun-purchase-a-month limit. Democrats say tightening Virginia's gun laws will make communities safer and help prevent mass shootings like the one last year in Virginia Beach, where a dozen people were killed in a municipal building.
"I was prepared to see a whole lot more people show up than actually did and I think it's an indication that a lot of this rhetoric is bluster, quite frankly," said Delegate Chris Hurst, a gun-control advocate whose TV journalist girlfriend was killed in an on-air shooting in 2015.
Some of the protesters waved flags with messages of support for President Trump. Trump, in turn, tweeted support for their goals.
"The Democrat Party in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia are working hard to take away your 2nd Amendment rights," he tweeted. "This is just the beginning. Don't let it happen, VOTE REPUBLICAN in 2020!
The Virginia State Police, the Virginia Capitol Police and the Richmond Police had a heavy presence, with officers deploying on rooftops, patrolling in cars and on bicycles.