(Reuters) - Virginia Governor Ralph Northman on Wednesday declared a state of emergency and banned all firearms and other weapons around the state capitol building this weekend, ahead of a major gun-rights demonstration expected to draw thousands of people.
Northam, who is leading a push for stronger gun laws in his state, said he wants to avoid a repeat of violence that erupted at a 2017 white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, when a march by white nationalists erupted and led to the death of a counterprotester.
Virginia, where Democrats took control of the legislature by promising stronger gun laws, has become the latest focal point for the contentious American debate around the right to bear arms. Many gun-rights groups contend the U.S. Constitution guarantees their ability to possess any firearm. Those opposed say gun laws would help lessen the number of people killed by guns each year.
Gun-rights advocates, including militia groups and ultraconservative activists, are planning a “Lobby Day” rally on Monday, seeking to block gun control legislation backed by Northam, a Democrat, whose party recently won majorities in both chambers of the state legislature.
“We’re seeing threats of violence. We’re seeing threats of armed confrontation and assault on our capitol,” Northam said. “These are considered credible, serious threats from our law enforcement agencies.”
The governor’s office said in a statement that law enforcement intelligence analysts have identified white nationalist rhetoric about the event and plans by out-of-state militia groups to attend.
The governor said he did not want to go into the specific threats, but did mention that authorities have seen individuals “surveilling entry and exit points on capitol square” and pointed to online chatter about “weaponized drones” being used by rally-goers.
Several measures - including universal background checks and “red flag” laws - that would toughen gun laws in the state are quickly making their way through the Senate and House, and could be passed before the end of the month.
The Virginia Citizens Defense League, which is organising the rally, hopes that a large turnout by gun-rights proponents, most of whom will be openly carrying weapons as allowed by state law, will persuade lawmakers not to back the measures, according to materials posted online by the group.
“A substantial crowd will be here in Richmond,” State Police Superintendent Colonel Gary Settle told reporters on Wednesday. “We’re talking several thousands of people.”
Everyone attending Monday’s rally will be required to enter through a security checkpoint, authorities said.
Last week, Virginia lawmakers approved a new gun policy prohibiting firearms inside the Capitol and a nearby office building. But they did not extend the ban to Capitol Square, the public space outside that includes monuments to prominent Virginians and the Virginia Civil Rights Memorial.
Reporting by Brad Brooks in Austin, Texas, and Brendan O’Brien in Chicago; additional reporting by Daniel Trotta; Editing by Scott Malone, Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis
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