Lobby Day brings dueling rallies on gun debate to Virginia State Capitol

RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — Virginians on both sides of the gun debate rallied at the Virginia State Capitol on Monday.

Despite calls for action, many reforms appear destined for gridlock in the 2023 session due to a politically-divided government. That’s not stopping lawmakers from playing offense in an election year that will see every seat in the General Assembly on the ballot.

“We the people will defend this Constitution and the Republic which it creates and we do that with weapons if necessary but we, first of all, do it with our votes,” said James Manship, who dressed up as George Washington for the guns rights rally.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day, which is also called Lobby Day in political circles, traditionally brings several advocacy groups to the State Capitol. There were road closures and a heightened police presence throughout downtown Richmond in preparation for a series of planned demonstrations, which were all peaceful.

On Monday morning, Capitol Police estimated roughly 150-200 people turned out for a rally spearheaded by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a fraction of the more than 20,000 protesters that showed up in 2020 when Democratic leadership passed a slew of new gun reforms.

This year, gun rights advocates want to remove permitting requirements to concealed carry in Virginia, following suit with other states that already allow “constitutional carry.” They’re also backing bills to repeal Virginia’s red flag law and roll back local authority to declare gun-free zones in certain places.

“We don’t need to turn law-abiding citizens into criminals because of a confusing patchwork of laws,” said Senator Amanda Chase (R-Chesterfield).

One armed group who declined to share their names refused to go inside Capitol Square because of a gun ban on state government property, which VCDL also wants to get rid of.

But the bills gun rights advocates are supporting face an uphill battle this year in the Democrat-controlled state Senate.

“What this session is going to be judged on is not necessarily what we passed but what we stopped,” said Del. Tim Anderson (R-Virginia Beach).

House Democrats, who are hoping to take back the majority in the fall, unveiled their gun violence prevention agenda on Monday morning.

“This is an epidemic that is harming all of us and gun violence is entirely preventable,” said House Minority Leader Del. Don Scott (D-Portsmouth) during a press conference. “House Democrats won’t wait.”

Del. Dan Helmer (D-Fairfax) has a bill that would ban the possession of high-capacity magazines with 15 rounds or more and the new sale of assault weapons, which he said would impact AR-15s and some semi-automatic firearms. Another bill seeks to increase the minimum age for purchasing these guns.

“They are common sense measures to make sure weapons of war like those I carried in Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t on the streets,” Helmer said.

House Democrats are also proposing bills to strengthen secure storage requirements and increase penalties for adults who fail to keep firearms away from minors. These measures are top of mind after a six-year-old shot and injured a teacher in Newport News earlier this month.

Another bill aims to mandate a waiting period after gun purchases. Late last year, a Walmart supervisor opened fire on a store in Chesapeake after reportedly purchasing the pistol legally just hours before pulling the trigger.

Democratic lawmakers laid out those goals during a rally of gun control supporters on Monday afternoon. Capitol Police said there were roughly 50 people in attendance.

Cameron Bertrand, a gun violence survivor turned advocate, was among them.

“I want lawmakers to know that there are real people losing real lives every single second that they take to sit around and litigate and talk about things that don’t create any instrumental change,” Bertrand said.

Governor Glenn Youngkin and other Republicans serving in statewide offices were notably absent on Monday. Several speakers during the gun rights rally called them out.

In a statement, Youngkin’s spokesperson Macaulay Porter said he was participating in a service project to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day and was therefore “unable to attend.”

“Governor Youngkin is prioritizing stiffer penalties for criminals who commit violent crimes with a firearm, a transformation of Virginia’s behavioral health system to get people in need the right help, right now, and further investment in law enforcement to recruit 2,000 more badges on the streets,” Porter said.