By Brad Brooks
(Reuters) – Backed by Virginia’s first Democratic-controlled legislature in over 20 years, Governor Ralph Northam vowed this week to push through new gun-control laws, angering gun-rights advocates who plan to respond with a rally of thousands of armed citizens.
It is unclear how many people will attend the Jan. 20 rally in Richmond. State police are already making security plans, aiming to avoid a repeat of the chaos seen in Charlottesville in 2017, when a march by white nationalists erupted in violence that led to the death of a counter-protester.
The legislative bills that Northam’s administration is backing include universal background checks on gun sales, a ban on assault-style rifles, and passing “red flag” laws that would allow courts and local law enforcement to remove guns from people deemed a risk to communities.
It is not Northam’s first effort at tightening the state’s gun laws. He called a special legislative session last summer after the massacre of 12 people in Virginia Beach, but the Republicans who then controlled it refused to vote on his proposals.
“The measures I proposed did not receive a hearing,” Northam said in an address when newly elected lawmakers first convened on Wednesday. “Virginians watched. They saw what happened, and they were appalled. So they changed the legislature.”
The change in legislative control has made Virginia a key target for people on both sides of the gun-rights debate, one of America’s most polarizing issues.
The Virginia Citizens Defense League, which is organizing the rally, hopes that a large turnout by gun-rights proponents, most of whom will be openly carrying weapons as allowed by state law, will persuade lawmakers not to back the measures, according to materials posted online by the group.
Its representatives did not respond to multiple requests for comment this week.
Since the election, some officials in nearly all of Virginia’s 95 counties have declared they would not enforce new gun laws, calling themselves “sanctuary cities” for gun rights – adopting a term first used by localities opposed to harsh treatment of illegal immigrants.
The idea has quickly spread across the United States, with at least 200 local governments in 16 states passing such measures.
However, Pew Research polling finds that 60% of Americans favor stricter gun laws overall. Some measures, including background checks for private gun sales and laws preventing people with mental illnesses from buying guns, are overwhelmingly favored by most Americans, regardless of their political stripe.
Joe Macenka, a spokesman for the Virginia Capitol police, said the force has had several meetings with rally organizers.
“They are very interested in having a positive outcome for the rally,” Macenka said. “They understand that if you want to have success in influencing legislation inside the general assembly, it would behoove you to have a positive situation outside.”
State police earlier this month spent two hours briefing Northam on preparations.
Macenka acknowledged that the “great unknown” was how many people and groups not connected to the organizers would attend.
Several known militias and organizations labeled as white nationalist hate groups by critics have indicated online that they will turn up in Richmond in force.
Northam addressed some unfounded claims the groups have spread online ahead of the expected rally.
“No one is calling out the National Guard. No one is cutting off your electricity, or turning off the Internet. No one is going door-to-door to confiscate guns,” Northam said. “These laws are intended to keep Virginians safe. Period. It’s time to act.”
(Reporting by Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas; Editing by Scott Malone and Bill Berkrot)