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Gun-rights advocates turn out in huge numbers to protest proposed Virginia restrictions

Editor's Note: In the video for this story, we mistakenly identified Patrick Heelen as Patrick Heeling. We regret the error.

Huge numbers of gun-rights supporters gathered in Richmond, Virginia, Monday to protest a wave of gun-control measures being proposed by the state’s new Democratic majority. Despite fears of violence, the demonstrations remained peaceful as thousands of demonstrators (some heavily armed) rallied to defend the Second Amendment. William Brangham reports and joins Nick Schifrin to discuss.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Gun rights supporters gathered in huge numbers today in Richmond, Virginia. They're protesting a wave of gun control measures being proposed by the newly elected Democratic majority in the state.

    William Brangham is in Richmond today. Nick Schifrin will talk with him from the scene in a bit.

    But, first, William has this report.

  • William Brangham:

    They started gathering before dawn. They have come on charter buses from every corner of the state and beyond, thousands and thousands of gun-rights supporters coming to Virginia's capital.

    Governor Ralph Northam, citing violent threats from out-of-state militias, banned all firearms from the capitol grounds. But outside that area, many exercised the rights they have come here today to protect.

  • P.J. Hudson:

    I don't want the government taking my right, my liberty, my God-given right to protect myself

  • William Brangham:

    Democrats swept the last election, winning control of the Virginia Statehouse for the first time in over 25 years.

    After a mass shooting in Virginia Beach last year where 12 people died, Democrats ran and won on a gun control platform. Among the laws Democrats here are considering are a suite of gun control measures that would include an assault weapons ban, universal background checks for almost all purchases, and these so-called red flag laws, where officials could temporarily take guns away from people who are deemed to be dangerous.

    Patrick Hope is a Virginia Democrat who chairs the House's Public Safety Committee. He's championed several gun control measures, and says he's been threatened because of it.

  • Patrick Hope:

    There's more than 100 people that die every single day.

    And what you see on the news are the mass shootings, but what you don't see are the number of shootings in communities of color, neighborhoods, the suicides because people have access to guns. And there are too many guns that are readily accessible to too many people.

  • William Brangham:

    When the Democrats won, and made all those promises of what they were going to do, what was your reaction?

  • Steve Clark:

    Made me sick. Its just so illegal, what they're doing. And there's no calling them on it.

  • William Brangham:

    Steve Clark owns and runs Clark Brothers, a 60-year-old gun store and shooting range in Warrenton, Virginia. He says Democrats mistakenly blame the guns for violence committed by people.

  • Steve Clark:

    If you're drunk and you run over somebody, if you're mad and you run over somebody, in New York, when the guy took a box truck and drive — drove down through the bicycle path and killed all those people on bicycles or pedestrians, they go after him.

    It's not the truck. I don't care how safe you're trying to make things. The Second Amendment says you can't touch the guns. And if you have got a problem with people killing somebody else with whatever they do it, the person that did it's responsible. The gun has nothing to do with it.

  • William Brangham:

    In the last few months, gun rights supporters across the state have flooded city and county offices, protesting the Democratic proposals.

  • Man:

    Let us provide our own defense.

  • Chris Murphy:

    I think it was a wakeup call for a lot of people.

  • William Brangham:

    Chris Murphy trains people in gun safety in Central Virginia. He says that the state's long history of strong pro-gun rights lulled many into complacency.

  • Chris Murphy:

    The biggest reaction I have seen has just been shock, just kind of a disbelief that it's gone from zero to 60, as it were.

  • William Brangham:

    Now over 100 cities and counties in Virginia have voted to become what some call Second Amendment sanctuaries, places where newly passed gun laws will not be enforced.

    Sheriff Scott Jenkins of Culpeper County says he won't enforce any law he says is unconstitutional, and he says there's no limit to the number of local gun owners he would deputize to help him block those laws from being enforced.

  • Sheriff Scott Jenkins:

    I will swear in thousands of auxiliary deputies in Culpeper.

  • Patrick Heelen:

    What we're doing is standing for the Constitution and the rule of law. We're the people that want to hold our government accountable. And we're the people that want it to play by the rules and to respect our rights. And that's not happening.

  • William Brangham:

    Patrick Heelen and April Quinn both live in Culpeper. Patrick was the first to petition his commissioners to defy any new gun control laws.

  • April Quinn:

    There are over 20,000 gun laws on the books, as they say. And so it's already illegal to kill someone or to rob someone or to do something of that nature. So these laws don't do anything but hurt law-abiding citizens, which take away my ability to protect my family.

  • William Brangham:

    You have the Democrats in the legislature saying, we think the Constitution gives us this ability to curtail the sale of guns to certain people under certain conditions. You believe that this is a clear violation. Isn't it natural that the courts would handle that?

  • Patrick Heelen:

    That's how things have played out, yes. But, again, the language is unambiguous and clear. It's not subject to interpretation, shall not be infringed. You know, I didn't have to go to law school to figure out what that means.

  • William Brangham:

    While there were concerns about militia groups causing problems, the several hundred or so we saw were heavily armed, but peaceful.

    This group calls themselves the Ohio Patriots and came to support their fellow Virginians. With so many armed protesters, many gun control groups stayed away today. But we did meet this group representing March for Our Lives, the youth movement that arose after the Parkland school massacre.

  • Nupol Kiazolu:

    I was one of the youngest counterprotesters in Charlottesville at 17 years old.

  • William Brangham:

    Nupol Kiazolu is a 19-year-old college student from Hampton Roads in Virginia.

  • Nupol Kiazolu:

    I lost my father to gun violence at 8 years old. I absolutely support the Second Amendment right. But there — it's clear that there needs to be regulation with guns in America.

  • William Brangham:

    But for the thousands of Second Amendment supporters who came out today, from across Virginia and from many other states, they don't see any room for compromise on any gun control laws.

  • Patrick Heelen:

    But if they can take our rights, they can take your rights. This is about the idea of America.

    And if we lose this, we lose that.

  • William Brangham:

    It's important to remember that, as we hear those very strong attitudes against gun control, the most recent poll of Virginia voters shows overwhelming support for gun control, 86 percent, 70-something percent, over 50 percent for many of the measures that the Democratic legislature is proposing here.

    So, we heard one set of voices against gun control, but Virginia voters have been polled. They also support gun control — Nick.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    William, in the lead-up to today, as you know, there were concerns about violence, even insurrection.

    And yet it seems like the day is ending peacefully?

  • William Brangham:

    That's right.

    As far as we could tell, there was no violence whatsoever today. And, of course, everyone is glad to hear about that.

    As you saw in our tape piece, there were an enormous amount of militia members here, heavily armed, armed to the teeth, really. Many of those militias are — behaved themselves perfectly well.

    We do know from some of the insignias that we saw some of the militias that were here have espoused violent anti-government rhetoric, but none of that was manifest today.

    The overwhelming majority of people we saw were just regular Virginians who care a lot about the Second Amendment and came out to voice their opposition to the laws they're seeing coming out of the legislature.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And when it comes to that opposition, William, there are more than 100 Virginia cities and counties who have all said, regardless of what the legislature passes, they're not going to enforce any new gun control laws.

    How real is that threat?

  • William Brangham:

    It's a very good question, because we don't know how much of that is symbolism and how much of that is really going to show up in practice, where the rubber hits the road.

    The lawmakers that we have talked to, Democratic lawmakers, think it's largely a symbolic statement, that it's not really going to — that, when push comes to shove, that law enforcement officials will actually follow the law.

    According to legal experts that we have spoken with, these are not really legally binding votes that are taken. They're symbolic votes, but many people we have spoken to said, symbolism matters and it's important for us to have registered in the vast majority of counties in this state that we don't like what we're hearing coming out of the legislature.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    William Brangham in Richmond, thank you very much.

  • William Brangham:

    You're welcome, Nick.

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