RICHMOND, Va. ― Who would have guessed? A pro-gun rally was sullied by the threat of gun violence.
Thousands filled the square around the Virginia state capitol on Monday, many of them with the goal of protesting gun control measures proposed by Democratic-led state lawmakers, including mandatory background checks and restrictions on gun purchases.
But the original point of the demonstrations got lost amid the threat of violence, posed days before the protest began. Neo-Nazis had allegedly plotted to open fire at the rally, Gov. Ralph Northam declared a state of emergency, and hundreds of gun-toting men from out of the area were bused in by the militia that hosted the event.
What resulted was not a protest with a clear, pro-gun message, but a circus of ideas and characters from the far-right, many of them well outside of the pro-gun umbrella. Everyday pro-gun protesters were flanked by an assortment of extremistists from the fringe: gun-toting militia members, conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones and QAnon, blathering neo-Nazi Jovi Val, punch-happy gangs Patriot Prayer and the Proud Boys, and even an armed group formed on the internet, seeking to bring on a civil war.
The intended message was lost in a crowd that often looked more like a real-life assemblage from a 4chan message board than a Second Amendment lobbying event. That this group was able to gather without anyone getting shot or maimed became a celebratory note for conservative pundits.
The underlying issues surrounding guns (there’s more than one mass shooting every day in America, for example) weren’t really represented at all, as counterprotesters largely avoided the event on account of the violent threats. Days before the rally, three suspected neo-Nazis planning to attend Monday’s demonstration were arrested amid an alleged plot to open fire and sow chaos.
Some of those who did attend aren’t exactly known for taking up Second Amendment causes. The Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer, for example, exist to fight counterprotesters in the street, and spend weeks plotting their attacks against them. Alex Jones, the InfoWars host most famous for lying about the Sandy Hook school massacre, was seen cruising Richmond streets in a tacky armored truck, screaming into a megaphone to applause from the audience.
When a reporter asked a Proud Boys member where his compatriots were, he suggested looking “on the rooftops.” It was an implicit threat referring to a 2018 incident in which members of Patriot Prayer ― a group aligned with Proud Boys and other violent extremists ― were found on the roof of a Portland, Oregon, parking garage with a cache of weapons.
The makeup of the crowd was black mark for those citizens who said they had shown up with a genuine interest in fighting gun control. Don Huttle, a Vietnam veteran and former police officer, drove all night from his home state of Indiana to demonstrate. He agreed with universal background checks, but said the government was “overreaching” by attempting to confiscate guns. (No Virginia legislation proposes confiscating guns.)
“Seizing weapons I feel is morally wrong and against constitutional rights,” Huttle said. When reminded that SB 16 ― a bill that sought to ban assault rifles in Virginia ― died last week, Huttle still expressed concern that gun owners could turn violent.
“If it can be stopped here in mass protest, my hope is that it stops before there’s bloodshed,” he said. “Because there’s too many people that are very angry about this.”
In the end, there was no bloodshed, in part because the threat of violence was so severe that the government declared a state of emergency. But some of those carrying guns on Monday sure seemed like they wanted to use them.
“This is peaceful civil disobedience,” one protester named Michael ― who declined to give his last name ― told HuffPost. “We’re not here for a fight, but we’re ready if need be.”
Those who showed up with their semiautomatic rifles, dressed up in full military garb, practicing war tactics, and some wearing patches celebrating fascist, murderous dictators and “death squads,” appeared to be salivating for violence, not the sanctity of the Second Amendment. One man, who did not provide his name but said he was a gun seller based in New York, carried a Barrett .50-caliber sniper rifle capable of turning a human being into mist with one shot.
In the end, though, the soldier role-players didn’t appear to get what they wanted.
With no one to give into their confrontation, militia members were left practicing marching single-file down Main Street, past Richmond’s cute bars and diners, pretending to be the soldiers they aren’t.