RICHMOND — As thousands of gun rights advocates and other armed groups prepare to rally at the Capitol next week, Gov. Ralph Northam announced Wednesday he’s declaring a temporary state of emergency to ban all weapons from Capitol Square.
“We have received credible intelligence from our law enforcement agencies that there are groups with malicious plans for the rally that is planned for Monday,” Northam said at a news conference.
Monday — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — is the traditional day people come to lobby legislators at the Capitol. The issue that has dominated this session is gun control, which newly empowered Democrats have promised to enact this year.
Northam said law enforcement officials have heard reports of “out-of-state militia groups and hate groups planning to travel from across the country to disrupt our democratic process with acts of violence.”
“They’re not going to peacefully protest, they’re coming to intimidate and cause harm,” said Northam, flanked by Virginia State Police, Capitol Police and Richmond police officials.
The state of emergency begins at 5 p.m. Friday and will last through 5 p.m. Tuesday.
Beginning at 7 a.m. Monday and Tuesday, the Capitol grounds will be open until 5 p.m. Law enforcement will set up barricades around Capitol grounds, and establish one entrance at East Grace Street and Ninth Street. Law enforcement will search and scan people for weapons.
Ninth Street between East Broad Street and East Cary Street and East Main Street between 14th Street and Eighth Street will be closed to traffic.
“I have the authority as your governor to do this,” Northam said.
In a statement, however, Senate Republicans said they were “not confident” Northam had the authority to ban firearms on Capitol Square.
The move comes after Democrats last week voted to prohibit the public as well as lawmakers from carrying firearms in the Capitol building and nearby Pocahontas building, which houses the lawmakers’ offices. The majority-Democrat Rules Committees approved the policy in the face of protest from Republican legislators.
The previous policy allowed gun owners with a concealed carry permit to carry firearms in those buildings.
Republicans acknowledged the concerns of law enforcement, but they felt the firearms ban would “heighten” tensions and discourage law-abiding gun owners wishing to meet with legislators from coming to Richmond.
“This year’s expanded presence is in response to the numerous pieces of legislation that would roll back Virginians’ Second Amendment rights,” Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, said in a statement. “Second Amendment Lobby Day has occurred without incident for as long as I’ve been a member of the General Assembly. Precautions against potential agitators are appropriate, but Virginians should be made to feel welcome at their Capitol, not unwanted.”
The National Rifle Association encouraged people to come to Richmond earlier this week, when the Senate Judiciary Committee took up a batch of gun control bills. There were no incidents that day.
“That is what peaceful events look like,” Northam said. “I thank the NRA for hosting a peaceful event.”
Northam called on the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a pro-gun group to the right of the NRA, to follow the NRA’s example.
The group has been leading the charge in establishing Second Amendment sanctuaries across Virginia. It’s organizing for a major showing of gun rights activists in Richmond on Monday.
Gun shops and other groups also have organized for people to come to Richmond.
Rhetoric around the issue has been intense, with threats of violence and gun rights advocates calling local government leaders “traitors.” Northam has publicly addressed misinformation and conspiracies spawning from gun control proposals.
“Hate, intimidation and violence have no place here,” Northam said.
Law enforcement said people should be prepared for long lines, large crowds and limited access to food and restrooms. They also said to expect heavy police presence. People can sign up for news alerts from Capitol Police during the temporary state of emergency at www.dcp.virginia.gov.