Jurisprudence

Why Are Militia Groups Descending on Virginia?

Groups are warning of gun grabs and internet blackouts. In reality, the new gun measures are widely supported by Virginians.

Several men wearing body armor and carrying guns stand on the sidewalk.
Militia members at the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

After months of threats, hoaxes, and fury at the prospect that Virginia’s new Democratic majority might restrict gun rights, the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a pro-gun group politically to the right of the NRA, is planning to descend on the state capital in a major rally on Monday.

Since the fall election, the rhetoric around guns in Virginia has dramatically intensified. Memes appeared on the internet claiming that Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam was going to shut down the internet, cut off utilities, and seize guns. Since November 2019, more than 100 counties, cities, and towns in Virginia have declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries” and have vowed to oppose any new restrictions on guns which they deem to be unconstitutional. Some proponents have even resurrected words like nullification and interposition, terms first used extensively by Southern secessionists prior to the Civil War and more recently during the “massive resistance” to federal laws requiring desegregation in the 1960s. Gun groups became further incensed in December when Democratic Congressman Donald McEachin suggested that if people did not follow the law, Northam should use the state’s National Guard to make them do so.

Despite the rhetoric about gun confiscation and governmental overreach, most of the measures proposed by Democrats are widely supported by Virginians. A December poll indicated that universal background checks, one of the first measures that will be enacted, are supported by 86 percent of Virginia voters. A bill that would allow courts to temporarily prevent the dangerously mentally ill from having access to firearms, the so-called “red flag” law, enjoys the support of 73 percent of Virginians, and similar measures have been passed in seventeen states and D.C., including Florida, Nevada, New York, and Colorado.

Concerned about rising tensions and false statements online, Northam, in an unprecedented move, used his annual State of the Commonwealth Address to the joint assembly last week to assure Virginians that “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.” That effort has not, however, stemmed the tide of controversy. Even Liberty University President, Jerry Falwell, Jr., has gotten into the act, stating that the Second Amendment is “sacred” and that the state is “going to be faced with civil disobedience, not just by citizens but by police officers. And I think it’s what they deserve.”

Monday’s protests are expected to be so volatile that even the National Rifle Association has distanced itself, directing supporters to attend a separate “lobby day” last week, when hundreds of Virginians peacefully and respectfully argued against the legislation.

Still, Monday’s action is expected to draw a larger crowd than the NRA’s lobby day, and the governor says he has received intelligence that some groups that came to Charlottesville for the Unite the Right rally in 2017 will reappear in Richmond. Militia groups across the country have promised to protest in Richmond, dressed in military camouflage and outfitted with sophisticated assault weaponry. White supremacists have been using their internet sites to issue threats and mobilize; similar activity preceded Charlottesville. The Justice Department said Thursday that three men taken into custody by the FBI amid an investigation into the white nationalist group called The Base had weapons and were considering attending the rally in Richmond. Some Antifa groups, who frequently organize in an effort to repel, with violence if needed, those on the right with whom they disagree, were purportedly ready to engage as well.

The potential for mayhem is so acute that the governor has declared a state of emergency and banned “weapons of any kind” from Capitol grounds through the evening of January 21. Before the ban, Philip Van Cleave, the head of the VCDL, urged supporters not to bring assault-style rifles to the rally, but had not discouraged them from bringing handguns; he continues to complain that protestors will be defenseless without having the right to carry weapons to the demonstration. Legal challenges by the VCDL to the ban in the courts have now stalled; the Virginia Supreme Court ruled on Friday evening that it will not overturn the governor’s action. It is not clear whether the group will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. And it is not clear how protestors will respond to the ban.

Legislators are worried, but continue their work. The Virginia Senate passed gun safety measures on Thursday: one to restore the state’s previous one-handgun-a-month rule, another empowering local governments to ban guns in public buildings, parks and at permitted events like political protests, and the third requiring background checks for all gun sales. The House, after years of attempts, was finally able to engineer a prohibition to ban firearms in the Capitol and in the House gallery, joining many other southern legislatures that have adopted such measures. The other House Democratic initiatives will be heard in subcommittee late next week and, given the energy around gun safety measures evidenced in the last election, many will likely pass.

January 20 is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day at the Capitol, and it is typically the time when many school children come to see how government operates. Not so this year. Instead, Capitol Square will likely be filled with loud and angry gun advocates claiming that their rights are about ready to be severely compromised by the Virginia General Assembly. State officials are determined to prevent a replay of Charlottesville; whether protesters will cooperate remains to be determined.