MOTHERJONES.COM DECEMBER 2, 2020 – On a frigid Martin Luther King Jr. Day earlier this year, Philip Van Cleave brought out the big guns to Richmond.
As he stood on the steps of the Virginia State Capitol, Van Cleave—a 68-year-old balding and mustachioed software programmer—delivered a stern warning to the Democrats who had recently gained control of the state government: “We’re here today to remind Governor [Ralph] Northam and the general assembly that the last election was not a referendum on gun control.” In front of him, an ocean of pro-gun protesters whooped in solidarity. Nearly all were armed, many gripping AR-15-style rifles or other assault weapons. A good number were decked out in paramilitary outfits and tactical gear. Confederate and Gadsden flags waved high and wide.
It was a scene that once would have been credited to the National Rifle Association—the nation’s oldest gun rights group, which, over the past several decades, has inflamed and radicalized a broad coalition of conservative gun owners through alarmist messaging, especially during the Obama administration, and cemented itself as a formidable political force. But the NRA has since dwindled in power, and the rally was the work of Van Cleave’s Virginia Citizens Defense League, a no-compromise, far-right gun rights group that he once boasted was “proud” to have been labeled an “extremist” organization.
Over the past 19 years, VCDL’s Lobby Day protests in Richmond—an annual event on MLK Day when special interest groups, predominantly ones with conservative ties, advocate to the General Assembly—were relatively mild affairs, with about 600 to 800 attendees. But this year it attracted more than 20,000, and the days leading up to the protest put the state on edge. The FBI arrested members of the neo-Nazi group the Base, who had allegedly stockpiled firearms and ammunition, discussed plans to recruit members at the rally to help kickstart a race war, and talked about committing acts of violence against people of color.
Northam declared a state of emergency to ban weapons on the grounds of the state capitol building, but the crowd was so large that most armed attendees couldn’t even fit in the area, instead spilling into the side streets of downtown Richmond. Alex Jones, the notorious conspiracy theorist and Infowars founder, drove around the streets in an armored vehicle screaming through a bullhorn, “If they try to take our firearms, 1776 will commence again!”
The rally was a bellwether: the sudden downfall of the nation’s most powerful gun group and the rise of more radical pro-gun organizations and militias seeking to take its place.
Since 2016, the NRA has seen a steady decline in its ranks. Meanwhile, there’s been a boon in membership for more extreme groups like the VCDL and the Second Amendment Foundation, which recently filed a number of lawsuits challenging state gun control laws, and the National Association for Gun Rights, which paints itself as a more conservative alternative to the NRA.
There’s no doubt a void to be filled by the NRA, but it’s unclear what groups will dominate. “We’ve got 100 million gun owners in this country,” says Joshua Powell, the NRA director’s former chief of staff. “Whether it’s the NRA or some other group, somebody’s going to have to fill those shoes.” [full article]