Thousands of gun-rights activists from around the country rallied in the Virginia state capitol of Richmond on Monday, protesting against plans by the state's Democratic leadership to pass gun-control legislation.
The size of the crowd and the expected participation of white supremacists and fringe militia groups raised fears that the state could see a repeat of the violence that exploded in 2017 in Charlottesville. But the rally concluded uneventfully around noon, and the mood was largely festive, with rally-goers chanting “USA!” and waving signs denouncing Democratic Governor Ralph Northam.
Many protesters chose not to enter the designated rally zone, where Northam had instituted a temporary weapons ban, and instead packed the surrounding streets, many dressed in tactical gear and camouflage and carrying military-style rifles as they cheered on the speakers.
“I love this. This is like the Super Bowl for the Second Amendment right here,” said PJ Hudson, a truck driver from Richmond who carried an AR-15 rifle just outside Capitol Square. He was one of the few African-American rally goers in the crowd that was overwhelmingly white and male, and frequently was stopped and asked to pose for pictures wearing his “Black Guns Matter” sweatshirt.
One Richmond resident said: "It's our constitutional God-given right to arm ourselves. Having a gun is for peace of mind. It's a protection thing."
The rally was organised by the Virginia Citizens Defence League (VCDL), which opposes gun control laws proposed by state Democrats, who control the Virginia government.
The VCDL has condemned what it considers a breach of the Second Amendment of the US Constitution, which states that "the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringe". The amendment has proved controversial over the years and has been subject to many different interpretations.
The Supreme Court has ruled that individuals have the right to keep firearms in their households, but left it to states to determine how the weapons could be transported.
President Donald Trump, a major ally of the gun lobby, tweeted his support for the protesters.
"The Democrat Party in the Great Commonwealth of Virginia are working hard to take away your 2nd Amendment rights," he said. "This is just the beginning. Don't let it happen, VOTE REPUBLICAN in 2020!"
Many of those massing near Capitol Square wore "Trump 2020" or "Make America Great Again" hats in support of the conservative president. (AP, AFP)