Richmond Times-Dispatch

Organizers say bid for January pro-gun rally foiled by opposite side

- BY GREGORY S. SCHNEIDER

Organizers who staged a massive pro-gun rally at the state Capitol in January say they’ve been shut out of holding a repeat event next year, and instead plan to jam Richmond’s roadways with a caravan of vehicles from all over Virginia and beyond.

“Games are being played to silence us,” Philip van Cleave of the Virginia Citizens Defense League told his members in an email Tuesday.

When he called the state Department of Government Services to arrange a Jan. 18 permit for a rally on Capitol Square, van Cleave was told the only time slots available were 6 a.m. and 6 p.m., he said. Everything else had been booked by groups advocating for gun control.

“This was a thinly veiled effort to lock us out,” van Cleave said in an interview. His organizati­on sponsored the gathering that drew thousands of armed gun rights advocates to Richmond on Jan. 20— Martin Luther King Jr. Day, a traditiona­l day of citizen lobbying at the General Assembly.

State officials strongly denied the accusation.

“DGS does not base any permitting decisions on content or the applicant, ever,” spokeswoma­n Dena Potter said. “We issue permits in the order in which the applicatio­ns are received.”

The debate might be academic anyway, because state restrictio­ns to prevent the spread of the coronaviru­s currently limit public gatherings to 25 people.

“We have no way of knowing what guidance will be in place in mid-January,” Potter said.

Lori Haas of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, one of the groups that sought a permit for a demonstrat­ion that day, said there was no coordinate­d effort to block out van Cleave.

“There’s nothing nefarious, nothing underhande­d, nothing untoward that I know of that took place,” Haas said. Her group had been scheduled to hold an event on Capitol Square last January — as it has every year for more than two decades — but canceled once the progun rally drew national attention.

In calling state officials to cancel, Haas said, she simply asked to grab a spot next year instead. Then she told other groups what she had done, and they followed suit.

The MLK holiday has long been known in Richmond as Lobby Day, a chance for advocacy groups to bring ordinary citizens to the Capitol to buttonhole lawmakers on issues of interest.

Over the years, VCDL has come to dominate the day, staging a gun rights rally by the old Bell Tower on Capitol Square and leading teams of supporters — usually wearing orange “Guns Save Lives” stickers — to legislativ­e offices.

A year ago, Democrats won control of the General Assembly on promises to enact gun control — an issue highlighte­d by a mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building in May 2019 that left 12 people dead.

The prospect of new laws prompted gun rights advocates, egged on by tweets from President Donald Trump, to converge on Richmond in January from all over the country in record numbers. The rally filled downtown Richmond with armed groups, and police were on high alert because several lawmakers had received threats of violence.

The day passed without incident. By the end of the legislativ­e session, Democratic majorities in the Senate and House of Delegates had enacted a slate of gun-related legislatio­n, including limiting handgun purchases to one per month and imposing universal background checks.

All were signed into law by Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam.

Gun control has amuch lower profile heading into next year’s session, which is sure to be dominated by the impact of the coronaviru­s pandemic. But van Cleave said his group wants to keep up the pressure.

“I think [Democrats] were embarrasse­d by the turnout” at January’s gun rally, he said. “They wanted to show strong support for gun control in Virginia and that’s not what they got.”

So now the VCDL will follow the model of “Trump trains,” he said — convoys of vehicles that paraded through towns ahead of the presidenti­al election.

“All of them will be decked out with flags and magnet signs. We’ll probably have buses leading the caravan,” he said.

This approach carries a few advantages, he said: It doesn’t require a permit and people can keep warm and dry in their vehicles.

“And it doesn’t mean you can’t get out and walk around Richmond while you’re there,” he said.

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