Supporters of gun rights rallied outside a secure perimeter at the Virginia State Capitol on Monday, in Richmond, Va.Credit...Victor J. Blue for The New York Times
RICHMOND, Va. — Some people streamed in on buses from faraway cities. Others drove cars through the night from places like Indianapolis and Fredericksburg, Texas, logging hundreds of miles and leaning on coffee and Red Bull. Still others came from only a few counties over, but carrying the same vehement message as the rest: Leave gun laws alone.
Thousands of people descended on Richmond, the capital of Virginia, on Monday to show support for the rights of gun owners as a push for gun control measures by that state’s newly empowered Democrats has inserted Virginia into a nationwide debate over gun violence and the Second Amendment.
“I don’t like what they are doing to our rights,” said Raymond Pfaff, 85, from Louisa County, Va., who wore a yellow sign around his neck that read, “First Gun Control and Then People Control.”
“Guns protected this country for a couple of hundred years, and this two-faced governor just wants to take them,” he said, referring to Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat who has agreed to sign provisions banning guns in parks and limiting handgun purchases if Virginia lawmakers approve them.
“I’m a patriotic American,” Mr. Pfaff said. “The left is going so far left right now.”
Virginia has a long history of supporting gun rights. Only last year, after a mass shooting in Virginia Beach that left 12 people dead, a special lawmaking session on gun control ended in 90 minutes without any action.
But a gradual demographic shift has emerged in the state — suburbs have boomed, and the ratio of Virginians in rural areas has shrunk. When Democrats flipped the State Legislature in the fall and won control of the state government for the first time in a generation, they pledged, in part, to swiftly seek new limits to guns. All of that has thrust Virginia into a tense battle over gun rights, and into the center of a national cultural divide.
“People feel their values are under attack and the emerging liberal elite are either unaware or unresponsive,” Bob Holsworth, a political analyst in Richmond, said of the rally, which the police said drew 22,000 people to the Virginia State Capitol and the wind-chilled streets around it.
For several days, the authorities had been bracing for the possibility of violence, fueled by reports that white supremacists, armed militia groups and other extremists planned to attend the rally, which was organized by the Virginia Citizens Defense League. In the end, the police reported no major incidents or violence and announced only one arrest, of a woman accused of wearing a bandanna to cover her face after being warned not to. (It is illegal in the state to wear a mask in public to conceal one’s identity.)
The F.B.I. on Thursday had announced the arrest of several people associated with the Base, a white extremist, anti-government group that aims to establish a white “ethno-state,” including three men who had obtained weapons and had discussed attending the rally.
Citing credible “threats of violence,” Governor Northam declared a state of emergency before Monday’s demonstration and temporarily banned all weapons from the Capitol grounds.
About 6,000 people without weapons made their way into the main protest area after waiting in line to go through metal detectors. Thousands more, some proudly displaying firearms and wearing camouflage clothing, packed nearby streets. There were military-style rifles, shotguns, 9-millimeter handguns, .45- and .22-caliber pistols, and even a .50-caliber sniper rifle.
Chris Dement, 22, said that he was glad to see the demonstration was peaceful but that he was prepared to use a 9-millimeter carbine — which he brought to stand in solidarity — for self-defense in case of violence.
“It’s never out of the realm of possibility,” he said.
Shannon Watts, the founder of Moms Demand Action, an anti-gun organization, wrote on Twitter that “gun extremists” had gathered “in an attempt to intimidate lawmakers out of doing what voters elected them to do: pass common-sense gun laws that will keep our families safe.”
Amid fears of a potential conflict, gun control activists delayed a vigil for victims of gun violence until hours after the rally ended. More than a dozen students, including some who had survived school shootings, waited in an office in the General Assembly building throughout the pro-gun rally, listening to shouting and cheers outside.
“Intimidation is not peaceful,” said Andrew Goddard, the legislative director for the Virginia Center for Public Safety, who led the group in a moment of silence for the thousands of people who have been killed in shootings.
Some gun rights supporters at the rally said they had always planned to carry out a peaceful demonstration, and felt unfairly associated with violence. Teri Horne, 51, of Quitman, Texas, stayed outside the weapons-free area, carrying her rifle. “This is where freedom began, right here, and this is what they’re doing to the people of Virginia,” Ms. Horne said as she pointed at police officers screening demonstrators.
Since Virginia Democrats took control of the Legislature, they have been racing to make a mark on state policy, and gun control has been atop their agenda. Last week, the State Senate approved three gun control bills that the House of Delegates could approve as early as this week. The measures limit purchases of handguns to one each month; require that gun buyers submit to background checks; and allow local governments to ban guns in parks and public buildings. Mr. Northam has said he would sign the bills.
But the fates of other limits, including a proposed ban on assault-style rifles, remain uncertain, and the state is still starkly divided on the issue, complicating political choices. In recent weeks, more than 100 municipalities have designated themselves “sanctuaries” for the Second Amendment. Though the measures are purely symbolic, lawmakers and sheriffs in those areas have said they will refuse to enforce new gun control laws.
President Trump, who lost Virginia in the 2016 election despite winning the rural, less populous parts of the state, has repeatedly drawn attention to Virginia’s debate over guns in recent days, warning that state Democrats were threatening Americans’ right to bear arms. On Monday, he wrote about the issue on Twitter, urging people to vote Republican. “I will NEVER allow our great Second Amendment to go unprotected,” he wrote, “not even a little bit!”
At the rally, support for Mr. Trump was apparent amid the banners and flags and shouts of “U.S.A.” A large “Make America Great Again” flag whipped above the crowds that gathered outside the State Capitol perimeter. A bus adorned in pro-Trump posters, including a “Women for Trump” flag and a flag with the president’s head photoshopped on Rambo, occasionally drove past the entrance of the Capitol grounds and was greeted with cheers from the crowd.
Dick Heller, the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit that led to a landmark Supreme Court decision in 2008 holding that the Second Amendment protected an individual’s right to keep and bear arms, drew roars from the crowd when he read parts of the amendment aloud. The Democrats, he said, “want to make us like Baltimore, Detroit, Venezuela, Chicago!”
Mr. Heller asked the crowd, “Do we need gun control in Virginia?”
The crowd roared back: “Nooooo!”
As the rally went on, occasional chants went up: “No confiscation! No registration!”
Vinny McMahon, 25, drove to the rally from his home in Maryland. “I don’t think the governor should be telling anyone what to do,” said Mr. McMahon, who brought one of his guns with him. “I want the ability to defend people around me.”
Timothy Williams, Sabrina Tavernise and Zolan Kanno-Youngs reported from Richmond, and Sarah Mervosh from New York. Neil MacFarquhar contributed reporting from New York.