Thousands of gun-rights activists, including armed militia members, rallied peacefully Monday in the capital of the southeastern U.S. state of Virginia in opposition to proposed gun control regulations.
Despite fears the rally could turn violent, the protest ended without reports of incidents or arrests. Reporters at the rally say the mood was mostly festive, with demonstrators chanting "USA, USA." Many in the crowd wore clothing with slogans supporting President Donald Trump.
Ahead of the rally, security was increased around the state Capitol in Richmond, where a state of emergency is in effect until Tuesday. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam last Wednesday issued the declaration which barred all weapons from Capitol Square to prevent "armed militia groups (from) storming our capitol."
Guns were still allowed outside Capitol Square, and many people attending the rally came to Richmond carrying their rifles.
Austin White, an armed protester, told VOA the demonstration is meant to "show that people can peacefully assemble and be massively armed and nothing is going to happen."
"Guns save people's life on a daily basis, but it is never perpetuated on the news," he said.
Madison Graf from Lynchburg, Virginia, attended the rally with her young family.
"It's not just our rights, it's our future kids' rights, as well. … The criminals aren't going to turn in their guns, so why should we?" she said.
Democratic lawmakers, who recently gained control of both houses of the state legislature, have made passing tougher gun control laws a central focus.
The Virginia Senate approved legislation late Thursday requiring background checks on all firearm sales and limiting handgun purchases to one a month. The Senate also passed a bill to restore the rights of local governments to ban weapons from public buildings and other venues.
Activists at the rally, organized annually by the Virginia Citizens Defense League, say the new laws infringe on their right to bear arms.
Gun rights groups, which contend the U.S. Constitution guarantees their right to own any firearm, had asked the Virginia Supreme Court to rule the governor's temporary gun ban during the rally unconstitutional. But the court upheld the ban Friday.
Kevin Meade, who drove to the rally from Fredericksburg, Virginia, told VOA he attended because "it's our right to bear arms. Our state government, with Northam as our governor, has overstepped that bounds."
He said the Virginia government is trying to disarm the public, and said "today is proof, they disarmed us coming in here."
Threats of violence
Authorities sought to avoid a repeat of violence that erupted in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 during a white supremacist rally. One woman was killed and more than 30 other people injured, as a white supremacist rammed his car into a crowd of counterprotesters. In contrast to Charlottesville, there were few signs of counterprotesters Monday challenging the gun rights activists.
The rally coincided with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, honoring the birthday of the civil rights activist who was assassinated in 1968.
Northam said authorities received credible threats of violence ahead of the rally, including the threat of deployment of weaponized drones over Capitol Square.
Extremist groups had also inundated social media and the internet with threatening messages and hints of violence.
Last week, the FBI arrested several alleged members of a white supremacist group on gun charges, partly due to concerns that the individuals planned to incite violence at the rally.
Tougher laws expected
Both houses of the Virginia legislature are expected to approve even more restrictive gun control laws, including a ban on assault rifles and "red flag" laws aimed at taking guns from people who are considered a risk to their communities.
U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted his support for the pro-gun rally on Monday and encouraged the attendees to vote Republican this year.
Supporters of tighter gun control laws say the restrictions would help reduce the number of people killed by guns each year.
Carolyn Presutti contributed to this report.