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Senate gathers on 'Lobby Day' under heightened security

Posted at 10:25 AM, Jan 18, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-18 15:00:44-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia state lawmakers met under heightened security Monday amid concerns about possible civil unrest in state capitals in the days leading up to President elect-Joe Biden's inauguration.

Several gun-rights advocates came to Richmond on Monday, some of them heavily armed.

The Martin Luther King Jr. holiday is typically a chance for citizens to use a day off work to meet with their legislators in what’s informally known as lobby day.

Gun-rights activists typically make a large, organized appearance each year. Last year, tens of thousands of gun-rights activists from around the country flooded the Capitol and the surrounding area in protest of a new Democratic majority's push to enact new gun restrictions.

This year they organized series of caravans through the city decked out in pro-gun messages amid the coronavirus pandemic. Gun laws have gotten much less attention this year, as Democratic leaders have not prioritized gun legislation.

The president of the group organizing the event, Philip Van Cleave with the Virginia Citizens Defense League, has said the event will be orderly and there are no plans to decamp from the vehicles for an in-person gathering.

Van Cleave said the organization is about law and order -- which he said was demonstrated in a large-scale way at last year's rally on Lobby Day. That rally brought tens of thousands of people to the State Capitol -- many armed -- and despite warnings from lawmakers ended with no violence.

"We will not be silenced. We’re doing everything the right way. We’re petitioning our government, in this case with a rolling rally, but we will not be silenced to go run and hide. We’re out here to protect a right and if there’s a risk involved -- liberty and freedom are worth the risk," said Van Cleave. "The message is that you have rights and we need to protect them - and the most important right is to protect your life."

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, the state Senate is convening for this year’s legislative session at a science museum event center that allows for greater social distancing.

House lawmakers are meeting virtually.

A small caravan of about 10 vehicles drove past the museum shortly before the Senate convened on Monday. It was not visible to lawmakers inside the event center. Lawmakers held a brief floor session with little mention of guns.

The state Capitol and grounds around it are closed to the public through at least Thursday. Near the Capitol on Monday turnout was light, with some people carrying long guns.

Among the attendees was Mike Dunn, a leader in the boogaloo movement, a slang term adopted by the pro-gun extremist movement that is a reference to a sequel - in their case, a second U.S. civil war. The movement has been linked to a string of domestic terrorism plots and has been promoted by white supremacists, but many supporters insist they’re not truly advocating for violence. The term “boogaloo” derives from the name of a 1980s-era movie sequel.

The FBI issued a warning about the potential for violence at state capitols in the aftermath of the deadly insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. But there were no reports of major incidents over the weekend and only small groups of right-wing protesters - some of them armed - gathered outside heavily fortified statehouses around the country on Sunday.

Gov. Ralph Northam and other top officials have said Virginia is well-prepared to prevent any violence.