Northam declares state of emergency ahead of gun rally

RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam announced Wednesday that he was declaring a state of emergency over threats of “armed militia groups storming our Capitol” ahead of a gun-rights rally next week.

Northam's emergency order will ban weapons of all kinds, including firearms, from the Capitol grounds starting Friday and continuing through Tuesday. He said the order was necessary to protect public safety because of potential violence from out-of-state groups at a gun-rights rally scheduled for Monday.

“Let me be clear. These are considered credible, serious threats by our law enforcement agencies,” Northam said at a Capitol news conference.

He added that some of the rhetoric used by groups planning to attend Monday's rally is similar to what was said in the lead-up to a deadly 2017 white nationalist rally in Charlottesville. “We will not allow that mayhem and violence to happen here."

Monday is Martin Luther King Jr. Day and is known as “Lobby day” in Virginia politics as advocates for a number of causes use the holiday to try and buttonhole lawmakers. It's also traditionally when pro-gun and gun-control advocates hold rallies. This year, law enforcement officials are expecting thousands of gun-rights advocates to attend a rally organized by the Virginia Citizens Defense League.

The group said its lawyers are reviewing the governor's emergency declaration but did not have immediate additional comment.

Republicans were mixed in their response. House Minority Leader Del. Todd Gilbert lamented that “there are legitimate concerns of a few bad actors hijacking the rally.” But Republican Party of Virginia Chairman Jack Wilson condemned Northam's declaration.

“Northam and the rest of the Virginia Democrats have made their session goal crystal clear: a disarmed, vulnerable, and subservient citizenry,” Wilson said in a statement.

The emergency declaration will mean road closures around the Capitol and limited access to the grounds, including a security checkpoint with metal detectors.

Law enforcement leaders from the Capitol Police, Virginia State Police and Richmond Police said public safety was their top priority and they would not tolerate any acts of violence.

Virginia law enforcement officials have been criticized for their planning and response to the Charlottesville rally that involved heavily armed protesters. One woman was killed and several more were injured when a car plowed into a group of counterprotesters.

Northam's declaration will also ban items like helmets and shields, items that some white nationalists carried in Charlottesville.

Gun laws have become a dominant issue this legislative session and there's been a heavy police presence at the Capitol.

Northam's planned announcement comes days after Democratic leaders used a special rules committee to ban guns inside the Capitol and a legislative office building. That ban did not include Capitol grounds, which are under the governor's control.

Democrats have full control of the statehouse for the first time in a generation and are set to pass a number of gun-control restrictions, including limiting handgun purchases to once a month and universal background checks on gun purchases.

Republicans and gun-rights groups have pledged stiff resistance. Gun owners are descending on local government offices to demand they establish sanctuaries for gun rights. More than 100 counties, cities and towns have declared themselves Second Amendment sanctuaries and vowed to oppose any new “unconstitutional restrictions” on guns.