Northam declares state of emergency ahead of gun rally

FILE - In this Jan. 8, 2020, file photo, Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, center, gestures as he delivers his State of the Commonwealth address as House Speaker Eileen Filler-Corn, D-Fairfax, right, and Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, left, listen before a joint session of the Virginia Assembly at the state Capitol in Richmond, Va. Northam plans to declare a temporary emergency Wednesday, Jan. 15, banning all weapons, including guns, from Capitol Square ahead of a massive rally planned next week over gun rights.

RICHMOND — Gov. Ralph Northam announced a temporary ban on firearms and other weapons on the grounds of the state Capitol Wednesday, saying he was taking precautions in response to credible threats.

The governor, a Democrat, is declaring a state of emergency from Friday evening to Tuesday night and prohibiting weapons on Capitol grounds, including firearms, sticks, bats, chains.

The move comes just days after the Virginia legislature's newly empowered Democratic majority banned guns from the Capitol building and an adjacent legislative office building. And it comes just ahead of a gun rights rally planned for Monday, which organizers say could draw tens of thousands to Capitol Square.

As Democratic lawmakers vow to pass a variety of gun-control measures, the rally has drawn interest from militias and extremist groups across the country, raising security concerns in Richmond.

Security has been unusually tight during the General Assembly session that kicked off last week, as Democrats — who won control of the House of Delegates and state Senate in elections in November — consider far-reaching gun-control legislation.

State Police have been out in force, providing backup for the Capitol Police, who normally patrol the square. Crews have been erecting steel crowd-control barricades around the manicured Capitol grounds in recent days.

The teenagers who normally work in the House and Senate as pages were given the day off Monday, the first business day after a joint House-Senate committee on Friday banned weapons from the Capitol and legislative office building. The ban is not subject to review by the full legislature.

Hundreds of gun rights activists flocked to the Capitol that day to protest the ban and to testify against the first gun-control bills to make it to a Senate committee that morning.

The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced four bills to the full Senate. The measures would require background checks on all firearms purchases, allow law enforcement to temporarily remove guns from individuals deemed a risk to themselves or others, let localities ban weapons from certain events and government buildings, and cap handgun purchases at one per month.

Next week's rally is being organized by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, one of many grass-roots groups that turn out every Jan. 20 - Martin Luther King Jr. Day this year - for what is a traditional day of citizen lobbying at the state Capitol.

This year, VCDL expects a much larger crowd because of the sweeping changes to gun laws that Democrats have promised to usher in. Democrats won their majorities in the November elections, ending a 26-year stretch when Republicans were able to quash any proposed restrictions on guns.

Gun control took on greater prominence in the fall elections following a deadly mass shooting in a Virginia Beach in May and after the GOP-controlled legislature swiftly adjourned a special session that Northam had called in the aftermath.

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