The Virginia state Capitol building is surrounded by fencing, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020 in Richmond, Va., in preparation for Monday's rally by gun rights advocates. Gun-rights groups are asking a judge to block the Virginia governor's ban on firearms at a massive pro-gun rally scheduled for next week. Gov. Ralph Northam on Wednesday, Jan. 15, announced a state of emergency and banned all weapons from the rally at the Capitol. (Dean Hoffmeyer/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)

Virginia urges justices to uphold weapons ban at gun rally

January 17, 2020 - 6:14 pm

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia urged the state Supreme Court on Friday to uphold a weapons ban at an upcoming gun rally in the capital, arguing it was necessary to prevent a repeat of deadly violence that erupted at a white nationalist rally more than two years ago.

State Attorney General Mark Herring's petition — and simultaneous legal efforts by gun-rights groups to lift the ban — came amid the arrest of six men whom authorities linked to a white supremacist group known as The Base. At least three of them were planning to attend the pro-gun rally on Monday in Richmond, according to an official who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss an active investigation.

In his legal brief to the Supreme Court, Herring called Gov. Ralph Northam's executive order banning guns from the Capitol grounds “a carefully limited Executive Order” that “does not prevent anyone from speaking, assembling, or petitioning the government.”

"Instead, it temporarily precludes private possession of firearms in a sensitive public place during a specified time to protect public safety," the brief says.

Herring argued Northam's order would help prevent the kind of violence that erupted at a 2017 white nationalist rally in the city of Charlottesville. One woman was killed and more than 30 others were hurt when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd. No one was wounded by gunfire at the rally.

A circuit court judge on Thursday upheld Northam's ban after gun-rights groups filed a lawsuit against it, arguing that it would violate their Second Amendment right to bear arms and their First Amendment freedom of speech.

President Donald Trump jumped into the fray on Friday, tweeting that the Second Amendment “is under very serious attack in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia.”

“That’s what happens when you vote for Democrats, they will take your guns away,” Trump tweeted.

Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League — the group sponsoring the rally — called Richmond Circuit Court Judge Joi Taylor's ruling upholding the ban “mind-boggling."

The Defense League and the organization Gun Owners of America immediately filed an appeal of the ruling to the Supreme Court. It was not clear when the high court would rule. Northam's ban went into effect at 5 p.m. Friday and was scheduled to remain in effect through Tuesday afternoon.

In imposing the ban Wednesday, the governor said law enforcement officials had found credible threats that the rally on Monday — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — could include “armed militia groups storming our Capitol."

Virginia's solicitor general, Toby Heytens, told Judge Taylor on Thursday that law enforcement had identified "credible evidence" that armed out-of-state groups planned to come to Virginia with the possible intention of participating in a “violent insurrection.”

The FBI has said all six men arrested — in Delaware, Georgia and Maryland — were linked to The Base, a collective of hardcore neo-Nazis that operates as a paramilitary organization. The Base has proclaimed war against minority communities within the United States and abroad, the FBI has said. Unlike other extremist groups, it’s not focused on promulgating propaganda; instead the group aims to bring together highly skilled members to train them for acts of violence.

One of the arrested men had discussed traveling to Ukraine to fight alongside “nationalists” and compared the white supremacist group to al-Qaida, a prosecutor said in court Thursday.

Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, a nonprofit advocacy group looking to curb gun violence, told reporters on a conference call Friday that online threats against the group's employees and volunteers have also increased, comparable to what they've seen previously in the run-up to large pro-gun rallies.

She noted that many of the expected rally participants are not Virginia residents, while those who harbor the most extreme views represent “just a very vocal minority.”

“Their views are not representative of the majority of Virginians,” she said.

Because of the threat of possible violence, organizers of an annual vigil for victims of gun violence — usually held on the King holiday each year — said Friday that they have canceled their event this year.

"Given the serious concerns about possible violence on Monday, we recognize that we can not guarantee the safety of the brave gun violence prevention activists and survivors who have fought so hard for this day," said Lori Haas, state director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence.

Friday’s developments unfolded on Lee-Jackson Day, a state holiday honoring Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. Legislation proposed this year and supported by Northam would scrap the holiday.

As state officials and gun-rights groups battled over the ban in court, a package of gun-control bills was moving through the legislature, which is now in Democratic control.

The Senate on Thursday passed legislation limiting handgun purchases to once a month, requiring universal background checks on gun purchases, and allowing localities to ban guns in public buildings, parks and other areas. The bill was passed along partisan lines. It will now go to the House for consideration.

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Associated Press reporters Alan Suderman in Richmond; Michael Kunzelman in College Park, Maryland; Jeff Martin in Atlanta; Jonathan Drew in Raleigh, North Carolina; and Mike Balsamo in Washington in contributed to this report.

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