As the group huddled in the lobby of the Pocahontas Building Friday morning, the stuffed animal heads poking out from their bags offered a hint about their mission. And it wasn't all warm and fuzzy.

The eight members of the Liberal Women of Chesterfield County hadn't turned their stuffed puppies into pistols the way prankster Sacha Baron Cohen did last year when he tricked Virginia's top gun lobbyist into participating in a satirical TV segment that endorsed arming preschoolers. 

But they wanted to make sure state lawmakers remember that it happened and warn them how it might look if they continue to ally themselves with the pro-gun Virginia Citizens Defense League.

Attached to each of the 150 stuffed animals was a card that replaced the rifle-carrying minuteman in VCDL's logo with an image of the "Puppy Pistol" that  VCDL President Philip Van Cleave held in the first episode of Baron Cohen's TV series "Who Is America?" The card included instructions to go to YouTube and search for "Gunimals."

"This video exposed the VCDL," said activist Gena Reeder. "And the legislature's vote will expose them."

The Liberal Women of Chesterfield County sprang up following President Donald Trump's election, and spent much of last year organizing to defeat then- Rep. Dave Brat, R-7th.

As the activists made the rounds among lawmakers' offices, they dropped off the animals and told anyone who would listen that lawmakers should "tune out" the pro-gun fringes and listen to people who don't think firearms being around small children is something to laugh about.

When Meredith Baker encountered Del. Dave LaRock, R-Loudoun, in the hallway, she jogged his memory about the video.

"He was pushing it as a product that children could use to defend themselves if they were in a situation where a gun was in their school. They could 'put the bad guy to sleep' and 'have a long time out.' And they had a little song about 'aim for the head, not for the toes.' It was ridiculous," Baker said.

"That was an embarrassing episode for him. But I think that people should be embarrassed if they continue to side with him."

LaRock, who last year sponsored legislation that would make it easier to have guns in places of worship, responded cordially. He said he took "a different tack" when it comes to keeping public places safe. He also pointed to House of Delegates Republicans' school safety committee, which focused largely on mental health resources and school counselors, but not guns.

LaRock said he didn't think Van Cleave shared the ideas and views on display in the Baron Cohen video.

"I think he was kind of a little too curious, went a little too far," LaRock said in an interview after his exchange with Baker. "Phil is a very, very knowledgeable, sensible advocate."

Even though some VCDL members felt the spoof video was a humiliation for the gun-rights cause, Van Cleave withstood his brush with national infamy and continues to lead the group.

"If you can't destroy the message, destroy the messenger," Van Cleave said in a phone interview after being told about the gun-control activists' stuffed-animal tactic.

Van Cleave has been working to mobilize gun-rights supporters to fight against gun control bills in the legislative session that begin this week, including a bill to strengthen criminal penalties for adults who leave guns where children can get them. The VCDL is planning to hold its annual rally at the Capitol later this month, which usually features speeches from prominent Republicans.

"Things are kind of odd politically right now, so we're not taking everything for granted," Van Cleave said. "We're going to fight every single thing full force."

Van Cleave said he's seen no signs the TV prank has caused his lobbying efforts to suffer. He said his words were edited for maximum effect on a fake "comedy show."

"It was a teleprompter. With their props," Van Cleave said. "None of that was me. That was all them."

Some lawmakers who stopped to talk with the activists didn't need any reminding about the spoof video.

"The gunimals. Very smart," said Del. Chris Hurst, D-Montgomery, who became a prominent gun-control activist after his girlfriend, TV journalist Alison Parker, was shot and killed in 2015 during a live shot at Smith Mountain Lake. "It's hard to take the advice of a lobbyist who can fall for Sacha Baron Cohen, you know?"

After a long chat with Del. Mark Keam, D-Fairfax, two activists posed for a photo with the delegate. They made sure a pink stuffed bear was in the middle of the shot.

"That's so cute," Keam said.

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