Virginia State Capitol
The Virginia State Capitol in Richmond. Credit: Ron Cogswell/Flickr

Lois Beckett has an article in The Guardian on the growing backlash against the prospect of Virginia’s state legislature passing gun violence legislation this year. Apparently, opponents of gun control are surprising people, including their own organizational leaders, with the size and breadth of their activism.

The forcefulness of Virginia’s second-amendment movement has taken even longtime organizers by surprise. Government meetings across the state that typically attract a few dozen people have seen overflowing crowds of hundreds or even thousands showing up to protest against new gun laws…

… Still, at least 125 counties, cities and towns across Virginia have passed some version of a second amendment sanctuary resolution since November, according to the Virginia Citizens Defense League. Just this week, the city council in Virginia Beach, the site of a major mass shooting last May, became one of the latest local governments to pass a resolution pledging to support citizens’ gun rights.

“I’ve never seen anything like this in the second amendment movement,” echoed Cam Edwards, a Virginia resident and former NRA TV host, and the editor of Bearing Arms, a pro-gun website. The closest political analogy would be the Tea Party, he said, “but this movement is centered around a single issue.”

These sanctuary resolutions are pledges by local governments that they won’t enforce state law. The movement is reportedly being led less by the NRA than by the more radical Virginia Citizens Defense League and its president Philip Van Cleave:

Van Cleave sounded almost breathless in a mid-December interview as he described being overwhelmed with emails, phone calls, and membership requests. He said he expected VCDL’s membership to double over the course of that month, from 8000 to 16,000 members.

“I’m telling you, people that have never committed a crime, that are law-abiding, and pay their taxes, do everything right, don’t even have a speeding ticket, are saying, ‘I’m not giving up my guns,’” Van Cleave said.

The group has organized a rally in Richmond for January 20, which is also Martin Luther King Jr. Day. The event is already attracting out-of-state pro-gun folks, including a potential horde of white nationalists.

White supremacist and anti-government groups are gravitating towards the standoff over gun rights in Virginia because they see it as a opportunity for radicalization and recruitment, said Daryl Johnson, a former lead analyst for domestic terrorism at the Department of Homeland Security.

They’re being mobilized by the usual suspects:

Virginia’s gun rights battle is already being covered widely in conservative media outlets. Donald Trump and the rightwing Arizona congressman Paul Gosar shared articles about it on Twitter. The Fox News host Tucker Carlson talked to a guest on his show about fears that local law enforcement in Virginia would be sent in to confiscate citizens’ guns. Carlson blamed the left for “trying to pick a fight, like a real fight, with rural Virginia”.

The movement is already steeped in bad information and conspiracy theories, and they’ve locked on Michael Bloomberg and his Judaism as a rallying cry.

White supremacist “accelerationists” have seized on the standoff as the potential beginning of a civil war that will destroy the United States and allow them to build a white nation in its ruins, according to Alex Friedfeld, a researcher at the Anti-Defamation League.

“The story they’re telling is that the Jews and immigrants are responsible for turning Virginia blue, and they’re coming to take your guns,” Friedfeld said. (Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire philanthropist and presidential candidate, is Jewish, and the gun violence prevention advocacy group he founded touted an investment of $2.5 million in Virginia’s 2019 elections to back local lawmakers who support gun control.)

To white supremacists, Virginia looks like a perfect example of their ideology: “You’ve got white replacement. You’ve got what they’re calling Jewish gun grabbers, and the people rising up, saying the government is illegitimate.”

The prospect of a possible repeat of the violence we saw in 2017 in Charlottesville has local and state officials concerned.

So far, Ralph Northam, the state’s Democratic governor, has said that plans to pass new gun violence prevention laws will move forward despite the public backlash.

“Everyone needs to work to turn the rhetoric down – at the end of the day, this is about keeping people safe,” Alena Yarmosky, a spokesperson for the governor, said.

The January 20 rally in the capital will be a challenge for law enforcement, especially because many of the protestors are actively yearning for a civil war that will destroy the country and allow them to set up a new nation based on white supremacy and anti-Semitism.

Apparently, even many people within the gun rights movement are concerned and are working to prevent people from openly bringing weapons to the rally. But with leaders like Tucker Carlson and Donald Trump rooting them on, the “good people” who will descend on Richmond on January 20 may feel like they have approval to light a spark.

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at