Virginia Supreme Court Allows Weapons Ban at Gun Rally

Anti-gun violence group cancels vigil out of safety concerns

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The Supreme Court of Virginia ruled Gov. Ralph Northam's state of emergency order banning weapons at the Capitol for Monday's gun rights rally can stay in place.

Organizers of the rally petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn the executive order and allow demonstrators to carry firearms at the event.

The state of emergency declared by Northam began at 5 p.m. ET Friday and continues through 5 p.m. ET Tuesday.

Workers were at Capitol Square on Friday, setting up fencing to secure the 14-acre site.

Gov. Ralph Northam signed an executive order barring guns from a gun rights rally scheduled for Monday. The order was upheld by the Virginia Supreme Court. This all comes as Democrats in the state legislature are set to pass sweeping gun safety legislation. Northern Virginia Bureau Chief Julie Carey reports.

Gun rights activists go to Richmond each year for a lobby day. Turnout is typically in the hundreds. But this Monday, as many as 50,000 gun rights activists are expected, the turnout fueled by anger over the Democrats' gun control proposals and stoked by the Internet.

'This Year Is Different': Gun Safety Group Cancels Vigil

Gun violence prevention activists usually hold a vigil each year a few hours after the gun rights rally.

But this year, they say, ongoing threats to public safety convinced them to call it off for the first time in 28 years.

"Advocates have faced armed individuals trying to intimidate us each year," Lori Haas, the Virginia director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, said in a release. "But this year is different; we have received information that heavily armed white supremacists will be seeking to incite violence, and our organization has decided that the safety of our volunteers, advocates, and staff, many of whom are survivors of gun violence, must be our top priority."

White Supremacists Arrested

The FBI in Maryland announced the arrest of three men Thursday who they said were linked to a violent white supremacist group known as The Base. The three men were believed to be planning to attend the rally in Richmond, according to a law enforcement official who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss an active investigation.

Three alleged members of the racially motivated violent extremist group “The Base" appeared at the federal courthouse in Greenbelt, Maryland, Thursday. NBC News learned they were under federal surveillance for months. As News4's Chris Gordon reports the suspects smashed their phones and tried to flush them down a toilet moments before their arrests.

Police also arrested three Georgia men linked to The Base, on charges of conspiracy to commit murder and participating in a criminal street gang. Floyd County police Sgt. Chris Fincher identified them as Luke Austin Lane, 21, of Floyd County, Michael Helterbrand, 25, of Dalton, and Jacob Kaderli, 19, of Dacula.

Investigators said they targeted a couple they thought were part of the far-left Antifa movement. There is no indication in the charging documents that they planned to attend the gun rights rally in Richmond.

Legal Battle Continues Over Firearms at Monday's Gun Rights Rally

The Virginia Citizens Defense League and Gun Owners of America sought an injunction against Northam's firearms ban, but Judge Joi Taylor ruled Thursday that Northam has the authority under state law to take action related to "the safety and welfare" of the state. The group's lawyers then turned to the Supreme Court of Virginia.

"Without relief from this court, petitioners and thousands of other rally participants will be irreparably denied their right to bear arms," the groups' attorneys argued in their appeal.

It was not immediately clear when the court would hear the appeal.

In her written decision, Taylor cited rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts that found the Second Amendment right to bear arms is not unlimited. Because of that, she wrote, the gun-rights groups would not "suffer an irreparable harm" sufficient to justify the injunction.

Virginia's solicitor general, Toby Heytens, argued at Thursday's hearing that the governor was well within his authority to declare the state of emergency and ban weapons after law enforcement identified "credible evidence" that armed out-of-state groups planned to come to Virginia with the possible intention of participating in a "violent insurrection."

David Browne, an attorney for the gun-rights groups, argued that prohibiting rallygoers from carrying guns would violate their Second Amendment right to bear arms and their First Amendment right to free speech. Browne said carrying guns is a form of symbolic speech.

Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League — the gun-rights group sponsoring Monday's rally — called the judge's ruling "mind-boggling."

Northam applauded the ruling in a statement.

"I took this action to protect Virginians from credible threats of violence," he said. "These threats are real — as evidenced by reports of neo-Nazis arrested this morning after discussing plans to head to Richmond with firearms."

Virginia senators were debating a package of gun-control bills as the court challenges developed.

The Democrat-led Senate advanced legislation limiting handgun purchases to once a month, requiring universal background checks on gun purchases, and allowing localities to ban guns in public buildings, parks and other areas. The measures largely passed along partisan lines and will now go to the House for consideration.

Democrats said they were reasonable measures that would improve public safety while respecting the rights of law-abiding gun owners. They said the public had made clear by voting for Democrats in recent elections that new gun laws were needed.

"The citizens in this last two elections have spoken," said Democratic Sen. Dave Marsden. 

Republicans decried the legislation as an assault on the Second Amendment. They said the bill was aimed at appeasing special interest groups and donors such as Democratic presidential hopeful Michael Bloomberg. GOP senators said the new laws would entrap innocent people and do nothing to stop bad actors.

"This may be what you think is safety, but it is not," said Republican Sen. Bill Stanley.

Associated Press reporters Alan Suderman in Richmond; Michael Kunzelman in College Park, Maryland; and Mike Balsamo in Washington in contributed to this report.

NBC Washington/Associated Press
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