RICHMOND, Va. (CN) – Siding with the governor, the Virginia Supreme Court refused to overturn a complete ban on all weapons on the Virginia Capitol grounds ahead of a pro-gun rally to be held there Monday.
The high court’s denial did not endorse Governor Ralph Northam’s executive order, however. Instead, the two-page order complains about the lack of a record on which to base any injunctive relief.
“Under the circumstances, we are unable to discern whether the circuit court abused its discretion,” the unsigned order states. "The circuit court decided this case in less than one day, and, accordingly, the record before the court is scant, there is no transcript or written statement of facts detailing the events of the hearing, and we are unaware of any evidence that was taken. The only information we have on which to resolve the weighty issues raised by the parties are pleadings accompanied by cursory attachments. Accordingly, the petition is refused."
The dispute started Wednesday, when Northam issued an executive order banning all weapons from Virginia Capitol Grounds from Friday through Tuesday evening. The ban, he said, is needed to protect citizens and legislators after “credible threats of violence” connected to the proposed pro-gun rally set for Jan. 20 emerged.
Northam noted the FBI’s arrest of three men in Maryland who were linked to a violent white supremacist group and were believed to be heading to Richmond for the event, according to The Associated Press. Additional reports of violent threats from online communities also began to spread, with one legislator, Delegate Lee Carter, D-Manassas, telling Courthouse News he will spend the day at a safe house after threats were specifically made against him.
“I’m doing what I need to do … to keep myself safe,” the delegate said.
Meanwhile Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League – who organized the event and is one of the plaintiffs in the suit – has since told reporters he’s unsure what to expect the day of the rally.
“I pray that they don’t do that,” Van Cleave told a local NPR affiliate when asked about the possibility of civil war spurred by gun restrictions state Democrats have promised to pass this legislative session. “But if it happens, it’ll be the governor that drove us into it.”
Van Cleave has been holding similar rallies on the same Monday in January, Martin Luther King Jr. Day, usually with fellow supporters armed with long guns, for decades without incident. But concerns about violence this year has led groups like the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence to cancel similarly annual counter-protests.
“Advocates have faced armed individuals trying to intimidate us each year,” said the group’s Virginia director in a statement posted online, noting this will be the first time the event has been canceled in almost 30 years. “But this year is different; our organization has decided that the safety of our volunteers, advocates, and staff, many of whom are survivors of gun violence, must be our top priority.”
Northam’s executive order was challenged in Richmond City Circuit Court on Thursday afternoon by The Virginia Citizens Defense League and other pro-gun activists who are coordinating Monday’s rally. But Richmond Circuit Judge Joi Taylor denied their request to block the order, saying the governor was within his rights to limit firearms on the Capitol grounds to ensure the safety of everyone there.
Appealing the denial, lead attorney David Browne with the Richmond-based law firm Spiro and Browne said Taylor got it wrong and, as argued in the complaint, said Northam’s order violates both state law and the Second Amendment.
"Apparently when firearms are involved, and the incantation of ‘public safety’ is invoked, courts are to step out of the way and let the executive branch do whatever it wants, even in the face of an unambiguous prohibition [in state law] to the contrary,” Browne wrote in the appeal filed late Thursday evening.
In a reply, Virginia Solicitor General Toby Heytens argued the order was well within the governor’s power and it did not limit demonstrators’ freedoms like the gun groups claimed.
“The order does not prevent anyone from speaking, assembling or petitioning the government,” Heytens wrote. “Instead, it temporarily precludes private possession of firearms in a sensitive public place during a specified time to protect public safety and safeguard the rights of all citizens to peacefully speak, assemble, and petition their government.”
No matter the outcome, it appears many of the legislators the gun groups hoped to sway will be out of town for the event. As of Friday afternoon, many committee meetings scheduled for Monday had been canceled or postponed to later in the week.
Monday’s rally falls in the shadow of a white nationalist gathering held in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017. The permit for the now infamous Unite the Right rally was originally denied by city officials, but a federal judge reinstated it the night before the event.
The following day, state and city police stood by as Charlottesville descended into chaos. One counter-protester, Heather Heyer, was killed when white nationalist James Alex Fields Jr. drove his car into a group of people. Fields was convicted of murder and is now serving a life sentence.
While there is little known about who will show up in Richmond on Monday, the Virginia Citizen Defense League has promised tens of thousands of supporters.
Conspiracy theorist, gun lover and conservative radio host Alex Jones has said he will attend. According to watchdog Media Matters, Jones invited white nationalist Richard Spencer – who helped organize the Charlottesville event – to attend as well.