After a highly anticipated pro-gun rally took place in Virginia without any incidents of violence, conservative and pro-gun outlets refused to acknowledge there were credible threats in the days leading up to the event, instead insisting that mainstream media and Democrats had maligned gun owners as violent white nationalists.
Following the 2019 Virginia elections in which Democrats gained control of both chambers of the legislature, Virginia lawmakers have advanced several gun violence prevention bills with the support of Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam and have struck down several Republican-sponsored bills to loosen gun safety regulations. So far, the legislature has voted four bills out of committee, which would: require background checks for all firearm sales; allow law enforcement to temporarily remove firearms from people who are determined to be a danger to themselves or others; allow municipalities to ban firearms from government buildings; and limit handgun purchases to one firearm a month.
As the bills move through the General Assembly, this year’s annual Lobby Day held on Capitol grounds in Richmond, Virginia, drew around 22,000 pro-gun supporters protesting background checks, limits on the number of handgun purchases, extreme-risk protection orders, and local communities’ ability to ban guns from specific events or venues. The Virginia Citizens Defense League rally, one of the traditional events at Lobby Day, falls on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and is typically uneventful. But this year, Northam preemptively declared a state of emergency after law enforcement agencies reported multiple credible threats of violence. Multiple gun violence prevention groups also chose to cancel their annual vigil on Lobby Day for similar safety concerns.
The rally ultimately took place with a “beefed-up police presence” and only one arrest -- a woman was arrested for wearing a mask in public -- but no instances of violence. Over 100 militia members came from out of state; most attendees wore camouflage, carried assault-style weapons, and brought flags that read “Don’t Tread On Me” and signs reading “Guns Save Lives” and “Resign Ralph.”
Tom Knighton noted in the pro-gun blog Bearing Arms that some white nationalists had latched on to the rally but lambasted some media outlets for “leading with ‘white supremacists’” in their coverage of the event, which he wrote supposedly implies “the lion’s share of attendees are racists.” Criticizing the media further, he claimed, “At the heart of this, though, is the fact that these people hate us. They despise us and they will do whatever they can to make us look bad.” Breitbart’s AWR Hawkins suggested that Northam was wrong in claiming his security decisions had “de-escalated” the tension before the rally because “no escalation preceded it,” while a headline at pro-gun blog The Truth About Guns implied media wanted a violent protest. In another The Truth About Guns post, Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms Chairman Alan Gottlieb demanded an apology from Northam for his “paranoid emergency disarmament order” that he claimed was not about safety but instead intended to discourage “as many angry Virginia grassroots activists as he could from participating in Monday’s rally.”
This emerging narrative is revisionist, plain and simple.
Three members of the white nationalist group The Base were arrested just days before the Lobby Day rally, which they had planned to attend. The men were charged with, among other things, illegal possession of firearms and ammunition and “transporting a firearm and ammunition with intent to commit a felony,” which included plans to open fire at the rally from different positions to create chaos. Newly released court documents show two Base members talking about the rally turning into a “full-blown civil war” and insisting that “we can’t let Virginia go to waste.”
Users on a 4chan message board best known for supporting white nationalism have been mobilizing against Virginia’s proposed gun safety laws since December 2019, and they promoted this year’s Lobby Day rally. Conspiracy theorist Alex Jones -- who actually attended the rally -- had hyped the prospect of violence and had preemptively called it a “false flag.”
According to Right Wing Watch, one protester held a sign reading “I have a dream of a Boogaloo” while another wore a “Boogaloo Boys” patch; the word “Boogaloo” is extremists’ slang for a coming civil war. While Northam issued a statement saying the rally showed that “when people disagree, they can do so peacefully,” it’s important to note that peaceful and nonviolent are not necessarily the same. As The Atlantic’s Garrett Epps points out, “Second Amendment activists have, over the years, gone to great lengths to obscure the difference between gun rights and genuine civil liberties, especially the freedom of speech. … A gun is not merely a symbol; it is not like words or ideas. It is an instrument of violence and death, and its display amid a crowd is a threat.”