RICHMOND, Va. - Gun rights advocates and militia members from across the country are urging thousands of armed protesters to descend on Virginia's capital later this month to stop newly empowered Democrats from passing gun-control bills.
What began as several rural Virginia counties declaring themselves "Second Amendment sanctuaries" has jumped the state's borders and become an Internet phenomenon. Far-right websites and commenters are declaring that Virginia is the place to take a stand against what they see as a national trend of weakening gun rights.
Unlike blue bastions such as California and New York, Virginia is a former Confederate state with strong rural traditions and lax gun laws. Guns represent the strongest, reddest line against the demographic changes that have seen Old Dominion voters usher in a new era of Democratic leadership in recent elections.
And so a Nevada-based group called the Oath Keepers said it's sending training teams to help form posses and militia in Virginia. The leader of a Georgia militia called Three Percent Security Force has posted videos and calls to arms on Facebook, urging "patriots" to converge on Richmond. The right-wing YouTube "American Joe Show" warned without evidence that Virginia will cut the power grid to stop the army of protesters - one of a host of false and exaggerated rumors spreading online.
Law enforcement and public safety officials say they are monitoring the situation, including several instances of threats toward Gov. Ralph Northam, a Democrat. Even some gun enthusiasts expressed concern about the potential for violence at a rally planned for the state Capitol on Jan. 20. State police briefed Northam for two hours last week, according to one state official, and the governor plans to lead an all-staff meeting this week to go over increased security procedures.
The Virginia Citizens Defense League, the grass-roots organization planning the rally, said it has told the state to prepare for as many as 50,000 or even 100,000 people showing up.
Police do not dismiss those projections. But at least so far, they have not seen indications that turnout will be that high.
"Do we look at these numbers seriously? It certainly behooves us to prepare for all possibilities," Capitol Police spokesman Joe Macenka said.
Lawmakers said they have been in regular contact with state, city and Capitol police, and VCDL president Philip Van Cleave said he is keeping lines of communication open so all sides are prepared.
"Hopefully it'll not be another Charlottesville," Van Cleave said, blaming police and state planning for the violence that erupted during 2017's Unite the Right rally around a Confederate statue. Counterprotester Heather Heyer was killed when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of people.
Van Cleave has appealed to his supporters not to come bristling with intimidating long guns - including assault-style rifles such as the AR-15 - and politely suggested that militia members are welcome but do not need to provide security. Police will take care of that, he said, "not to mention enough citizens armed with handguns to take over a modern midsized country."
That firepower is a concern for gun-control advocates, who also plan to turn out on Jan. 20 - Martin Luther King Jr. Day - for what is a traditional day of citizen lobbying at the state Capitol.
"There's a dangerous intersection here of speech and guns, and what I think is critically important is that we don't see the sort of armed intimidation and even violence that resulted . . . in Charlottesville," said Adam Skaggs, chief counsel and policy director at Giffords Law Center.
Democratic lawmakers who now control both houses of the General Assembly are considering making rules changes to limit where guns can be carried when the legislature convenes on Wednesday.
Visitors are currently allowed to bring guns onto Capitol Square and - with a concealed-weapons permit - into the Capitol itself and the adjacent Pocahontas Building. Firearms are even permitted in the House gallery, though the Senate gallery is off-limits.
The possibility of having to enforce a ban at entrances to public spaces is another uncertainty facing Capitol Police.
"We're in a wait-and-see mode," Macenka said. "It is not our job to draft these kinds of regulations. We enforce the law and we will do this to the best of our ability."
Democrats won their majorities in November elections, ending a 26-year period in which Republicans were able to quash any proposed restrictions on guns. After 12 people were killed at a Virginia Beach municipal building by a gunman on May 31, Northam vowed to pass some form of gun control.
Northam called a special session of the legislature on July 9 to take up the issue, but Republican leaders adjourned after 90 minutes without debating any bills. Advocates on both sides of the gun debate took over Capitol Square that day, with one side toting guns and the other chanting protests or wearing red Moms Demand Action T-shirts.
Afterward, Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring, a Democrat, issued an opinion that militia members presenting themselves as peacekeepers could be violating state law.
The Jan. 20 event could be on a far bigger scale. Van Cleave said his organization typically charters three buses to bring in scores of advocates for Lobby Day; this year, he has already chartered 23 buses and other groups have reserved 28 - and the number is climbing, he said.
Attention has been building since the Nov. 5 elections as the "Second Amendment sanctuary" movement has swept across the state. Beginning in rural counties, boards of supervisors - usually with hundreds of local residents looking on - have passed resolutions proclaiming that they would not enforce any unconstitutional effort to seize or restrict guns.
Tazewell County in southwestern Virginia went a step further, passing an ordinance that would enable it to raise a militia.
More than 110 Virginia counties, towns and cities have passed some type of sanctuary resolution in the past couple of months. The rapid spread was fanned by an escalation of rhetoric online.
"Virginia is the state that is testing this unlawful, unconstitutional, Second Amendment gun grab," Chris Hill, founder of Three Percent Security Force, said in a YouTube video. "If this is where it begins, then this is where it will end."
The Southern Poverty Law Center calls Hill's organization an anti-government extremist group. In an interview Friday, Hill said his militia is not a hate group and predicted any violence on the 20th would come from left-wing "antifa" activists or MS-13 gang members.
Among the wilder rumors spreading online is that United Nations "disarmament officers" have descended on Virginia. A photo of white U.N. trucks being transported on a flatbed, purportedly shot on I-81 near Lexington on Dec. 30, has been making the rounds.
"UN vehicles in Virginia to assist with shock-troop gun control!" read a tweet from someone called Catholic Charismatic. "Photo captured yesterday! Foreign troops! Retweet this vigorously."
The post got 4,000 retweets even though the photo has been circulating online since at least 2016. The fact-checking website Snopes.com debunked a similar U.N.-takeover theory sparked by the photo that year, determining the vehicles had been manufactured in Virginia by Alpine Armoring and were being shipped overseas.
Early in December, Rep. Donald McEachin, D-Va., responded to the Second Amendment sanctuary movement by suggesting in an interview that Northam might have to call out the National Guard to enforce gun laws.
Online, that turned into a false claim that Northam has actually called out the National Guard.
"Absolutely not," Northam spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said.
The commander of the Virginia National Guard, Maj. Gen. Timothy Williams, issued a statement that the organization had received "multiple questions" about its role in gun enforcement but that the governor had made no such requests. Nonetheless, Williams seemed to feed the frenzy when he included in his statement, "we will not speculate about the possible use of the Virginia National Guard."
One white supremacist blogger wrote a widely disseminated post claiming that Northam planned to call out the Guard and cut power and Internet service to thwart gun supporters.
That led to a meme with a fabricated quote in which Northam is made to say, "if you still refuse to comply I'll have you killed."
Both Snopes.com and PolitiFact have debunked the claims, but the falsehoods have reverberated in efforts to summon gun supporters to Richmond. Some of the comments in social media or on the Reddit thread r/VAGuns have turned menacing.
The conspiracy theory site Natural News posted an angry tirade about Northam, accusing him of starting a new civil war and suggesting vigilantes would kill any officials who tried to take their guns.
An anti-Semitic website said Jewish Democrats were "gun-grabbers," including former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg, the presidential candidate whose gun-control organization has poured millions into Virginia.
State officials declined to directly address the threats. "Our administration is taking serious precautions to protect the safety of all visitors, policymakers, and staff during the upcoming General Assembly session," Clark Mercer, Northam's chief of staff, said via email. "This issue evokes strong feelings, but spreading lies, rumors, and misinformation is irresponsible and dangerous. All legislators and advocates have an obligation to tell the truth and not irresponsibly escalate emotions, regardless of what policy positions they hold on these issues."
Northam is backing eight bills, the same package he submitted ahead of the aborted special session in July. Among them are measures to ban assault weapons, high-capacity magazines, bump stocks and silencers; require background checks on all firearms sales and transfers; cap handgun purchases at one per month; and create a "red flag law" to temporarily remove guns from people deemed a threat to themselves or others.
The proposed assault-weapons ban has been one of the most controversial measures, since the original bill bans not only the sale of those guns but possession - meaning people who already own them would have to give them up. Amid an uproar, Northam said a grandfather clause would be added to protect existing owners, but they would have to register their weapons. Gun-rights advocates were not appeased, saying registration is just a first step toward confiscation.
Response to that agenda has become so heated that the nation's most visible gun-rights group, the National Rifle Association, is taking an intentionally lower-key approach. It will sponsor town halls in three rural locations in the coming weeks, aimed at explaining proposed legislation.
Rather than publicize the Jan. 20 rally, the NRA has called on its members to visit lawmakers on Jan. 13, the day it expects the first bills to be taken up in committee. It has not commented on the sanctuary cities movement.
A group called United in Strength for America is sponsoring a two-day seminar at a hotel near Richmond's airport for the weekend before the Jan. 20 rally. Its slate of speakers includes Tony Pellegrino, founder of a West Coast conservative law academy, who will describe legal methods for fighting gun seizure laws. A state representative from Idaho "will share a behind-the-scenes look at the gun-grabbers," according to an email invitation to the event.
"The country is watching us, for Virginia is the canary in the coal mine of the nation," the invitation says.
All the outside attention has overwhelmed some of the homegrown gun rights advocates. Troy Carter, who helped rally support for a sanctuary proclamation in Amelia County outside Richmond, said he has seen the fiery language on social media.
"I am worried people will come here to Virginia and look for that opportunity to cause trouble," he said. "It's not going to be the sanctuary guys, because we just want peace and to be left alone."