Gov. Ralph Northam (D) talks to the media at the Virginia Capitol on November 6, 2019, in Richmond. | Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Why an annual Lobby Day has resulted in a state of emergency and online calls for a civil war.
On Monday, thousands of gun rights supporters will descend on Richmond, Virginia, for the Virginia Citizens Defense League’s annual Lobby Day. And so will a host of militia groups, conspiracy theorists, and far-right extremists, some of whom believe the rally in Richmond will represent the first shot of a new civil war, or as some users of the /pol/ forum term it, “boogaloo.”
In response, the governor of Virginia, Ralph Northam, has declared a state of emergency for Monday due to intelligence he says shows “a threat of an armed militia groups storming our capital.” One member of the Virginia General Assembly was so beset by death threats that he is currently staying in a safe house. The organizer of the rally is concerned enough to emphasize on a popular gun site that Monday’s rally is supposed to be a “peaceful event about gun rights and NOTHING ELSE.”
On Thursday, the FBI announced the arrest of three white nationalists in Maryland, members of a neo-Nazi training network called the Base — the English translation of the Arabic term “al-Qaeda.” The three, including one former Canadian army reservist who went missing last summer, were allegedly heading to Richmond. According to the FBI, they had recently constructed a machine gun and obtained thousands of rounds of ammunition and body armor. Three more members of the network were arrested on Thursday in Georgia.
The Lobby Day was intended to be an opportunity for Virginia gun owners to voice their displeasure with proposed gun control measures. Instead, the event has raised fears of mass violence akin to — or worse than — Unite the Right.
How gun control legislation led to a gun rights rally
The Lobby Day is an annual event for the VCDL, a pro-gun rights group, normally attracting a few hundred gun rights advocates to Richmond to lobby members of the state government. (The National Rifle Association has a separate lobby day, which was held January 13.)
This year, though, Virginia is on the cusp of actually passing gun control laws. A host of gun control bills are winding their way through the Virginia legislature, which is newly under Democratic control. They include a bill requiring background checks on all firearms purchases and transfers, a bill limiting the number of handguns that can be purchased per month, a bill to permit localities to ban guns from specific events and venues, and “red flag” legislation that would permit law enforcement to take guns from people deemed risks to themselves or others.
Such a legislative push was almost inevitable as gun control groups, reacting in part to a mass shooting in Virginia Beach, dramatically outspent the NRA (which is based in Virginia) and other gun rights groups during the 2019 election. That helped Democrats gain control of the state legislature for the first time in more than two decades, as I wrote in November:
Democrats didn’t win either the House of Delegates or Senate seat for Virginia Beach, but across the state, gun control was the top issue for voters and for Democratic candidates, according to one poll, with several candidates running explicitly on vows to “take on the NRA” to pass gun control legislation. According to Everytown, that focus (and money) resulted in at least three flipped seats that helped Democrats take control of the legislature. Gov. Ralph Northam said Wednesday that he now hopes to be able to pass a slate of gun control measures, and “because of that Virginia will be safer.”
Right now, Virginia has comparatively loose gun laws — the state permits open carry and does not require a permit to purchase or possess a rifle, shotgun, or handgun, but it does regulate gun shows. That means the four gun control bills mark a sea change for a state long noted as a gun rights haven.
And the commonwealth is closely divided on the issue of guns. Virginia’s recent political shift toward the Democratic Party elides just how divided the state is politically between Republican-leaning and less populated rural areas and Democratic-leaning urban and suburban regions in the north of the state and around Virginia’s flagship universities, the University of Virginia and Virginia Tech. The economic, cultural, and demographic differences between the two regional types are so extensive that, as the Virginia Mercury’s Bob Lewis put it last year, they make “Virginia feel more like two states than a commonwealth.”
As National Review writer Charles C.W. Cooke — who has written extensively on gun policy — told me in an interview: “Democrats run the legislature and the executive branch, but they don’t run the legislature by much.”
And for some gun owners, the bills constitute what gun rights advocate and Lobby Day speaker Cam Edwards called the “the most anti-gun legislative agenda in [state] history.”
“There are bills in the legislature that would turn the vast majority of the state’s gun owners into felons simply for maintaining possession of their ammunition magazines or legally purchased suppressors,” Edwards said. “We’ve seen legislation that would turn Virginia gun owners into felons for selling a shotgun to their brother without a background check, though gifting that same shotgun to that same brother would be legal.”
In response, gun rights advocates in Virginia have taken action. More than 80 counties in Virginia out of 95 have declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries” where proposed gun control legislation would not be enforced despite passage at the state level under the argument that those laws would be unconstitutional. (Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has argued that such resolutions have no legal force.)
Advocates for Second Amendment sanctuaries in Virginia are arguing that the Second Amendment trumps state law, Cooke told me. “Government officials who swear to uphold the Constitution cannot violate that Constitution,” he said. “If one believes that these laws would violate the Constitution, then one has no choice but to declare one’s opposition to them.” Hence, “sanctuary.”
Monday’s Lobby Day was intended to be another opportunity for gun rights advocates to speak out against the proposed legislation. But it has also attracted what Edwards called “bad actors” who were “seeking attention and a spotlight.” And some groups even claim to be seeking the beginnings of a race war.
Extremists hoping for violence have latched onto Lobby Day
The Lobby Day has attracted interest from Virginians legitimately interested in gun rights — and not just right-wing groups. According to an interview with Vice News, the Richmond-based Antifa Seven Hills is joining the protest because, as a spokesperson put it, “I think it’s been pretty important for us to focus on the fact that gun control in America has a legacy of racist enforcement.”
But the legislation being discussed has been heavily distorted online by far-right individuals and websites, with some claiming the proposed bills will result in full-scale gun confiscation by the government.
“There’s a great deal of fear and uncertainty surrounding some of these bills, which has been exacerbated in part by some on the pro-2A side for their own purposes, whether it’s to sell prepper products on their website or to generate clicks,” Edwards said. VCDL’s language has largely attempted to reflect caution, as the group says on its Lobby Day information page, “The eyes of the nation and the world are on Virginia and Virginia Citizens Defense League right now and we must show them that gun owners are not the problem.”
One Virginia legislator, Lee Carter, has been targeted with death threats. Carter, a democratic socialist who represents the state’s 50th District, has supported a bill that would permit teachers to go on strike but continue the longstanding practice of forbidding law enforcement from doing so — which some online (including a Virginia House of Delegates member) have twisted into an argument that Carter wants to punish sheriffs in “Second Amendment sanctuaries” for not obeying state gun laws.
As Gen’s Aaron Gell reported:
For Carter, the mischaracterization has become a matter of personal safety. “Now there’s a massive internet conspiracy theory that I’m working hand in hand with Gov. Northam, whom I can’t stand, the National Guard, and the UN, to go door-to-door taking people’s guns,” he explains. “It’s gotten to the point where people are openly discussing murder, and they want me and Governor Northam and Attorney General Herring to be the first ones dead.” The governor and AG have security details, he notes; state delegates do not.
Ironically, as Carter told Gell, though he supports some gun legislation being proposed (including universal background checks), he is a gun collector and a gun rights supporter who believes liberals and minorities should embrace gun ownership for their own safety. (He hasn’t yet responded to a request for comment from Vox.)
The Lobby Day is also receiving considerable attention from some groups connected with the violent Unite the Right rally held in Charlottesville in 2017; several groups and entities banned from armed protest in Charlottesville because of United the Right are expected to attend the rally in Richmond.
Unlike Unite the Right, which was planned and organized by explicit white nationalists, Lobby Day is a longstanding event, and VCDL is not a white nationalist organization. On the gun rights website Ammoland, VCDL president Philip Van Cleave attempted to tamp down tensions, discouraging attendees from carrying long guns at the rally for appearances’ sake, and (though arguing on the same site that Democrats may have invited extremist groups to turn the rally violent on purpose) making it clear that Lobby Day is not supposed to be a protest:
We are NOT there to have arguments with the other side. They lobby, we lobby, and never the two shall meet. Just ignore them.
And we are not there to push any other agenda. Our total focus is on protecting our right to keep and bear arms. Period. This is not about flags, statues, history, etc. Just guns.
If you somehow find yourself being harassed by the other side, don’t engage them. They could well be baiting you and recording what you do for propaganda purposes. If necessary, go find a police officer and let them take care of the person causing the disturbance. Otherwise, just ignore them and go about your business.
But the extremist rhetoric and explicit threats of violence online have raised real concerns from law enforcement, leading Virginia to declare a state of emergency and ban guns on state Capitol grounds. Those threats center on the idea that Richmond could be the site for the violent beginnings of a civil war, one sparked by restrictions on gun rights.
One far-right site falsely claimed in December that individuals attending Monday’s Lobby Day will have their guns confiscated at roadblocks across the state, that Virginia has “been chosen as the deliberate flashpoint to ignite the civil war that’s being engineered by globalists,” and that all of this will end with the United Nations occupation of America and nationwide gun confiscation.
“To all those who mocked our warnings about the coming civil war, you are about to find yourself in one,” the author, Mike Adams, wrote. “Sure hope you know how to run an AR platform and build a water filter. Things won’t go well for the unprepared, especially in the cities.”
This is common rhetoric for militia groups, said Sam Jackson, an assistant professor in the College of Emergency Preparedness, Homeland Security and Cybersecurity at the University at Albany who studies the Oath Keepers, a militia group expected to attend the rally on Monday.
“The anticipation of violation of gun rights is common among militia groups more broadly — pretty easily seen in all the ‘molon labe’ patches worn by militia folks,” Jackson said. (“Molon labe” is a classical Greek phrase meaning “come and take them.”) “Several novels that are important for the group depict war between Americans and the American government that begins with attempts at gun control.”
But beyond civil war, others expected to attend Monday’s rally are explicitly calling for a race war, in which white Americans will kill nonwhite Americans and Jewish people to establish a white ethnostate. Using the term “boogaloo” — a sarcastic reference to the 1980s film Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo that implies a “Civil War 2” of sorts — users of online forums like /pol/ are using Richmond as the impetus for the beginnings of a race war. They use phrases like “fuck all optics,” a reference to the last post shared on the social networking site Gab by the Tree of Life shooter, which has become a motto of sorts for white nationalists.
They’ve been encouraged by conspiracy theorists like Infowars’ Alex Jones, who said on January 8 that he and others from Infowars plan to attend the Richmond rally because “we’ve had two revolutionary wars basically start in Virginia, and it looks like one may start again.” He’s claimed that any violence that takes place at the rally will be a “false flag,” and in an interview with white nationalist Richard Spencer — who helped organize 2017’s Unite the Right rally — Jones invited Spencer to attend the rally.
The rally has also attracted attention from the ultra-violent neo-Nazi network the Base, an accelerationist white nationalist group that believes in using violence to overthrow the US government, foment a race war, and create a white ethnostate. The Base intends to operate internationally, with cells in multiple countries to evade detection by authorities. The group holds so-called “hate camps” where members receive paramilitary training and meet other members, including those from other countries.
One of the men arrested by the FBI earlier this week was a Canadian Army Reserve active combat engineer who, according to an investigation by the Winnipeg Free Press, “spoke on multiple occasions about committing acts of racially motivated violence and sabotage” in interviews with a reporter embedded in the terrorist group.
According to the criminal complaint, the Canadian reservist and two fellow Base members had manufactured a working machine gun, practiced using the gun at a range in Maryland, and purchased 1,500 rounds of ammunition.
Monday’s gun rights Lobby Day in Richmond was intended to be, according to its organizers, “a peaceful day to address our Legislature.” But some expected to attend hope otherwise. As one poster on the /pol/ online forum put it regarding Virginia’s proposed gun restrictions, “This is solid proof that voting accelerationism will work. Only such a civil conflict can bring about what we need.”