Andrew Ringle, Managing Editor
Hannah Eason, News Editor
When VCU freshman Mya Jackson saw men decked in camouflage and wielding AR-15s through Monroe Park, she immediately texted a photo to her mom — who asked, “why are you outside?”
More than 20,000 people rallied in support of the Second Amendment near the Capitol on Monday, and the flags, “Guns Save Lives” stickers and firearms made their way to campus.
“There was this giant freaking pickup truck, and it had a semi-automatic gun strapped on top,” Jackson said. “It was huge. It was insane.”
One arrest was made after 16,000 gun rights activists poured into the streets surrounding the state Capitol to protest gun control legislation on Monday.
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 on Monday. According to the Capitol’s social media accounts, 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.”
Freshman Sydney Sherman said that her mom was worried about the rally, although guns are not uncommon in her hometown.
“I live where gun stores are, where people believe in guns,” the Warrenton, Virginia, native said.
Although her mom picked her up and drove “pretty far” from Richmond, the pre-law track student said protesters filled the restaurant, eating lunch.
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 protesters on the Capitol grounds were calm compared to the thousands roaming the downtown area, many of whom were heavily armed.
Holding flags that read “Don’t Tread on Me” and “Come and Take It,” 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, singing the National Anthem in unison.
Many wore orange stickers that read “Guns Save Lives,” and some were also wearing camouflage hunter gear, blaze orange, combat boots and cowls or ski masks.
Tim Brown, a senior and environmental studies major, attended the rally and said he thought that gun legislation took power away from the people and handed it to the government.
“A lot of people felt scared, but we felt safe because it’s people that will die for you and protect you like we’re fellow Americans,” Brown said. “Just to have a huge event with 20,000 people carrying guns and have nothing happen, no injuries, no deaths.”
Senior Laszlo Nemes said the news media was trying to push a narrative ahead of the rally.
“The media is trying to push this ‘white supremacists, neo-Nazis, it’s going to be the next Charlottesville, stay inside,’ and nothing happened,” Nemes said. “Everyone’s smiling, everyone’s having a good time and everyone was showing the government ‘good luck taking all of our guns when you try to.’”
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 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 to 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.” Barrier 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,” 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.”
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, which means minorities fighting for their rights, which means gay, lesbian, trans, bisexual,” West said. “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 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.”
Executive Editor Georgia Geen contributed to this report.