Andrew Ringle, Managing Editor
Hannah Eason, News Editor
Georgia Geen, Executive Editor
One arrest was made after 16,000 gun-rights activists poured into the streets surrounding the state Capitol to protest gun control legislation today.
Mikaela E. Beschler, 21, of Richmond, was charged with a Class 6 felony for wearing a mask in public near the Library of Virginia around 1:30 p.m. According to VACapitol2020, an account on Facebook and Twitter, the arrest came after an officer warned Beschler twice to remove the mask.
“We are all thankful that today passed without incident,” Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam said in a statement. “The teams successfully de-escalated what could have been a volatile situation. This resulted from weeks of planning and extensive cooperation among state, local, and federal partners in Virginia and beyond.”
Beginning before the sun rose, protesters expressed frustrations toward Northam — many called for his removal and referenced the governor’s admission of having worn blackface — and toward gun control bills advancing through Virginia’s General Assembly.
The estimated 6,000 protestors on the Capitol grounds were calm compared to the thousands roaming the downtown area, many of whom were heavily armed.
Tim Boggs, a sign maker in Hanover County, showcased his profession on his posterboard: “Beware of the Coonhound!” said one side, showing an illustration of Northam wearing blackface and a list of proposed gun bills. “Oppose Tyranny, The Second Defends Them All,” read the other side.
Chesapeake resident Ryan Foster said he came to the rally to “keep politicians in check.”
“I think it’s very important for us as citizens to be able to defend ourselves whether it’s criminals or our enemies — foreign or domestic,” Foster said. “So I think that if we lose our Second Amendment rights, we lose our right to personal protection.”
In a circle, holding flags reading “Don’t Tread on Me,” “Come and Take It,” with an assault rifle on it, American flags and NRA flags, armed men stood in a circle early in the morning. The sun was still rising behind the Capitol building, and gun rights advocates flooded into 9th Street, and sang the National Anthem in unison.
Many wore orange pins that read “Guns Save Lives,” and some were also wearing camouflage hunter gear, blaze orange, combat boots and cowls or ski masks.
There was one entrance to the Capitol grounds at 9th and Grace streets, where people had to cross through metal detectors operated by police officers. Police checked bags and removed some people’s cigarettes and lighters while also turning some away who brought heavy camera equipment or firearms. The Virginian-Pilot reported that security was searching bottles of Advil and requiring people take sips of drinks they were bringing in.
Midlothian resident Doug Barrier stood at the corner of 9th and Franklin streets holding a sign that read “More Patriots Than You Have Handcuffs.” Doug said the high security around the Capitol grounds discouraged him from moving closer to the rally.
“I think the most dangerous decision today was to put up that fence and to trap people inside there. I wouldn’t go over there,” Barrier said. “You get in and you only got a couple of exit points. That’s an extremely dangerous situation. Why would the governor of this state do that?”
Barrier said the recent gun control legislation proposed by Northam is only to help the governor gain favor with “extremists in his party.”
“The governor indicated that we’re all white nationalists, racists and the scum of the earth,” Doug Barrier said. “Well, we’re not. The majority of the people here are just hardworking Virginia citizens. That’s what we are.”
Edward Layton, an outdoorsman and sportsman from Wood County, West Virginia, said gun legislation left rural community members vulnerable in counties with smaller sheriff’s departments.
“The people that are in the rural areas, the farmers and the sportsmen that are out there, response times from law enforcement at a minimum is 45 minutes to an hour for them to show up,” Layton said. “We’ve got counties in our state, and in the western part of this state as well, that may only have three or four deputies on duty for the entire county.”
He said he drove longer than seven hours to reach the state Capitol.
A man who identified himself as Ted West held a sign that said “Gun Rights = Civil Rights.” He said the Second Amendment protects the rights of minorities.
“The Second Amendment is about arming the people the government doesn’t want armed,” West said. “Which means minorities fighting for their rights, which means gay, lesbian, trans, bisexual. Everyone who is conscious that if they go out at night, and are maybe too open about who they are, they might have to fight.”
Calling himself a liberal, West said he was happy that Virginia became blue in November’s election. But he said he disagrees with the Democratic-led gun legislation.
“The firearm is an enhancement of equality between people,” he said. “You could argue that it makes things more dangerous, yes. But it makes people more equal, which I value higher.”
The firearms ban on Capitol grounds per Northam’s emergency orders is effective until Tuesday.
“Today showed that when people disagree, they can do so peacefully,” Northam said. “The issues before us evoke strong emotions, and progress is often difficult.”