RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Hundreds of gun-rights supporters held an annual rally at the Virginia Capitol on Monday, calling on the state’s Democratic legislative majority to back down from its push to send GOP Gov. Glenn Youngkin bills further restricting firearms.
Democratic legislators have filed a range of measures they say would promote public safety and reduce gun violence, including bills that would ban new assault-style weapons and enact strict new limits on concealed handguns in restaurants and clubs. The measures, which would build on the tightening of gun laws Virginia Democrats enacted in 2020 and 2021 when the party was in full control of state government, would infringe on civil liberties, speakers at Monday’s event on the Capitol grounds said.
“The legislature is coming whole hog at us and proposing things that are so blatantly unconstitutional it’s not even funny,” John Pierce, an attorney whose practice is focused on gun laws, said at the Virginia Citizens Defense League’s rally.
The showing — which was followed by a gun-control rally later in the afternoon — is unlikely to sway Democrats, who have vowed to make the issue a top priority this session. They have sponsored other gun-related measures that range from a ban on auto sears, which convert semi-automatic handguns into automatic weapons, to measures dealing with safe gun storage.
“We know that we have a problem with gun violence in America,” House Speaker Don Scott said at the afternoon event, according to local media.
Speakers at the gun-rights rally expressed optimism, tempered with a dash of concern, about how Youngkin might act on the gun-related measures that reach his desk.
The governor positioned himself as a gun-rights supporter during his campaign, but he notably did not fill out a candidate questionnaire from the National Rifle Association. The group in turn did not endorse him. Gun-related bills have not been a top focus of his administration’s efforts in past legislative sessions, which also featured divided government.
Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League, said in an interview that he was heartened to see Youngkin reference the issue in his address on the session’s opening day. In those remarks, Youngkin told lawmakers Virginia has some of the nation’s “toughest” gun laws, and he asked them to consider bills that would hold accountable criminals who commit crimes with guns.
Van Cleave said he felt “reasonably” confident that if the Democrats’ gun bills his organization opposes make it to Youngkin’s desk, the governor would veto them.
“I mean, we don’t know for sure,” said Van Cleave, who confirmed that Youngkin, who did not attend the rally, had been invited to speak.
Youngkin spokesman Christian Martinez said in a written statement that the governor will review “any legislation that comes to his desk” and reiterated the governor’s comments in his speech. Martinez did not address more specific questions about the governor’s position on specific pieces of legislation.
In other action Monday, a Senate committee held a lengthy hearing on a measure that would legalize and tax so-called “skill games.” The machines, which have proliferated in gas stations, bars and convenience stores around the state, look and play like slot machines, though manufacturers say there is an element of skill involved.
Lawmakers and the courts have been grappling with the machines for years. A ban went back into effect in October following a ruling from the Supreme Court of Virginia in litigation brought by the industry.
The measure, sponsored by Democratic Sen. Aaron Rouse, is backed by a range of interests that stand to profit from the machines, including coalitions representing businesses that host them and receive a share of the profits.
Casino interests have opposed the machines, which they say will remain too loosely regulated even under Rouse’s measure.
The committee took the unusual step of advancing the bill to the chamber’s finance committee, which is chaired by a bill co-patron, rather than a different committee, general laws, that typically vets gambling-related bills.
Sen. Adam Ebbin, who leads the general laws committee, called the move a disappointment. “I don’t know what the proponents are afraid of. They seem to have friends throughout the General Assembly,” he said.
The same panel also advanced a Democrat-sponsored bill opposed by a range of business interests that would increase the minimum wage from the current rate, $12, to $15 by Jan. 1, 2026.
Lawmakers also delivered speeches honoring the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The MLK holiday — which Youngkin marked by participating in restoration work at a historic African American cemetery — is informally known at the Virginia Capitol as “Lobby Day.” Citizen groups often use the holiday to meet with elected officials on a range of issues.
The Virginia Citizens Defense League, a well-organized grassroots group that charters buses to help supporters attend, often has the most visible presence.
This year’s crowd of gun-rights activists was far smaller than the tens of thousands who amassed in 2020 to protest plans by the state’s Democratic leadership to pass gun-control legislation.
While civilians are generally banned from carrying guns within the confines of Capitol Square, where the group’s rally took place, a handful of heavily armed individuals stood by on the sidewalk just outside of it Monday morning.