If a Culpeper rally offers a taste, Virginia lawmakers are in for quite a show of force when gun-rights advocates descend on Richmond next week.
Despite a light drizzle, nearly 500 men, women and children turned out for three hours Saturday to hear a dozen speakers defend the Second Amendment and attack Gov. Ralph Northam and Democratic legislators proposing background checks and red-flag restrictions.
Speakers included three GOP candidates for Central Virginia’s 7th Congressional District challenging U.S. Rep. Abigail Spanberger, as well as Republican Daniel Gade, who is challenging U.S. Sen. Mark Warner.
The noon rally in the town of Culpeper’s Yowell Meadow Park was hosted by the Culpeper County 2A group and the Culpeper County Republican Committee. Dozens of officers with the county Sheriff’s Office and town Police Department provided security.
Culpeper County Sheriff Scott Jenkins, the event’s keynote speaker, doubled down on his earlier vow to, if necessary, deputize hundreds of civilians to prevent state authorities from seizing residents’ guns.
And if state officials move to curb gun rights, Jenkins offered to safeguard residents’ weapons, deputize them, and then return their firearms to them.
“Violence is not necessary,” he told the crowd. “Your voice is necessary.”
It is vital, speakers urged, that gun-rights supporters call state legislators and turn out at Second Amendment events, such as a Culpeper Town Council meeting Tuesday, or the Jan. 20 rally in Richmond’s Capitol Square.
The latter, organized by gun-rights groups including the Virginia Citizens Defense League, is expected to draw many thousands of participants, league President Philip Van Cleave said. Thirty-three busloads of people are expected, so far, he said. Participants will come from as far away as Texas.
The Defense League is calling for Second Amendment advocacy groups from across the country to show up. “The eyes of the nation are upon us,” Van Cleave said.
Before the Virginia General Assembly has passed any laws, Democrats’ plans for gun-control policies have sparked widespread protests. Localities across the state, including Culpeper County, have passed “Second Amendment sanctuary” measures that pledge they won’t enforce gun laws that violate the U.S. or Virginia constitutions.
On Friday, a legislative committee banned firearms inside the Virginia State Capitol and buildings where lawmakers or their staff have offices. That came two days after the legislature reconvened under Democratic control for the first time since the early 1990s.
Gun control became a priority for Democrats last May after the deadly mass shooting at a Virginia Beach municipal building that left 13 dead. In July, when the GOP controlled the assembly, Republicans blocked eight gun-control bills during a special session Northam called in the mass shooting’s aftermath.
Now, Democrats believe they have voters’ mandate to pass those bills, as the Northam administration proposed Thursday. The measures include a ban on assault weapons, defined as any semiautomatic rifle or pistol with a magazine that holds more than 10 rounds.
A recent Christopher Newport University poll found that Virginians broadly support restrictions such as background checks and a red-flag law, with which authorities could temporarily take firearms from people deemed a threat to themselves or others. A slight majority of voters favor banning assault-style weapons, the poll showed.
Northam is also advocating measures to require background checks on all firearms sales and transfers, and to cap handgun purchases at one per month.
Saturday’s rally in Culpeper began with attendees reciting the Pledge of Allegiance—to claps and cheers—at Yowell Meadow Park’s pavilion, followed by Brian “Tiny” Folsom, who sang the “Star-Spangled Banner” a cappella.
Patrick Heelen, commander in chief of the Culpeper County 2A group, invited attendees to walk through the park to its granite monument to the American Revolution’s Culpeper Minutemen.
“I want to take us to the site where the Culpeper Minutemen, 350 patriots mustered July 17, 1775, in defense of our liberties in opposition to an overreaching and tyrannical government. I don’t know if that sounds familiar to anybody today,” Heelen said to loud cheers.
Reaching the monument, the Rev. Steve Harrelson, pastor of Mount Lebanon Baptist Church in Boston Va., gave the invocation and said he was proud to stand with others to oppose liberal ideology.
“I see a nation that I don’t recognize any more,” said Harrelson, who also serves as chaplain of the Sheriff’s Office. “And I can’t stand back and watch as our nation, our people, are handed over to a philosophy that doesn’t belong here. That is not what our nation is founded on—on the Christian values which have held our nation together.”
Harrelson spoke of Jonas Clark, a pastor in Lexington, Mass., during the Revolution. The patriots Samuel Adams and Patrick Henry asked Clark if his town would fight for liberty, he said. Clark replied: “I’ve trained them for this very hour. They will fight, and if need be, die, too, under the shadow of the house of God.”
Jon Russell, former chairman of the Culpeper Repbulican Committee, urged participants to turn out at the Culpeper Town Council’s Jan. 14 vote on whether the municipality should become a 2A “constitutional Town.”
“The governor, King Northam, has decreed that if you are going to buy any guns after his decree is signed, that our scary-looking rifles, you will not be able to own those and he will come and confiscate them,” Russell said. “King Northam has decreed that if you have scary-looking rifles now, you can keep those scary-looking rifles. Alright, we’ve heard that before. … But you have to register them with the state. This is where we are heading.”
At the monument, Amissville resident Phyllis Judd said in an interview that she’s a gun owner who felt compelled to attend the rally to support the Second Amendment. “I felt it was important to come today because after starting with gun regulation, where will it end?” she said.
“I feel it’s important to have the means to protect myself,” Judd added. “I’m vulnerable and need that security.”
A volunteer for the Sheriff’s Office’s charitable work, Judd said, “I’m proud of our sheriff and what he’s said about guns. I support him 100 percent.”
After people walked back to the park’s pavilion, Culpeper GOP Chairman Marshall Keene, Sheriff Jenkins and others took to the podium there.
The speakers included Russell; Van Cleave; Heelen; Gade, Sen. Warner’s GOP challenger; S. Chris Anders, director of Virginia Constitutional Conservatives; former British Army officer Max Alexander of the Culpeper Volunteers Facebook group; John Miska, a guest lecturer at the Rutherford Institute and former American Legion post commander; 7th District candidates Tina Ramirez and Andrew Knaggs; Tina Freitas, wife of Del. Nick Freitas, a 7th District candidate; and former Navy SEAL John McGuire, a Republican resident of Henrico County who also is challenging Spanberger.
Keene said he invited the Culpeper Demoratic Party to participate, but it declined. “This is an American issue, not a partisan issue,” he said. “Don’t let anybody tell you different.”
If gun restrictions come, Jenkins said, “Sheriff’s offices are the tip of the spear in enforcing them. Not every sheriff will take a stance and lay their badge on the line.”
He urged people to make their voices heard in Richmond, where he said legislators will begin considering gun bills on Monday morning.
“Today is the first step in what may be a long struggle to push back and make Virginia great again,” he said, wearing a red ball cap bearing the slogan “Make Virginia Great Again.”
Jenkins pledged to always adhere to the U.S. Constitution, especially regarding the Second Amendment.
“We have your back,” a woman exclaimed, drawing applause and cheers.
Tina Ramirez promised to defend Virginians’ gun rights and fight government intrusion.
“I will stand with you against Abigail Spanberger, Nancy Pelosi, AOC and anyone else who wants to take away your rights,” she said. “I look forward to that challenge and to retiring Abigail Spanberger.”
Freitas, who challenged state Sen. Emmett Hanger in last year’s GOP primary, said her husband, Nick, is a proven leader and expert debater who fiercely advocates for Second Amendment rights.
His no-notes speech about gun rights, delivered in 2018 on the floor of the House of Delegates, has drawn hundreds of thousands of views on YouTube, she noted.
“I truly believe he is the only one who can beat Abigail Spanberger and send her packing,” she said.
Knaggs, a former special operations commander and Pentagon leader, echoed other candidates’ vow to take on the 7th District’s Democratic incumbent. “It’s time to send Abigail Spanberger packing back to wherever she came from,” he said.
As to his Second Amendment views, Knaggs said they can be summed up in five words: “We are citizens, not slaves.”
McGuire, the former Navy SEAL, also pledged to vanquish Spanberger. “She says one thing in the district, and does something else in D.C.,” he said, criticizing her vote to impeach President Donald Trump.
“Our republic is in trouble. Our democracy is in trouble,” he said. “Your vote doesn’t count.”
McGuire called Spanberger’s support for the House war-powers resolution a vote “to take away Trump’s ability to go after terrorists.”
Editor Emily Jennings and photographer Vince Vala contributed to this report.