Virginia AG urges justices to prevent tragic rally violence


Gov. Ralph Northam banned guns from state Capitol grounds to try and prevent the kind of violence seen at the Charlottesville protests in 2017.

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring urged the state Supreme Court on Friday to reject an effort by pro-gun groups to overturn a gun ban at a rally that's expected to draw tens of thousands of activists to Richmond next week, amid fears of violence.

The legal arguments have unfolded as the FBI helped police arrest six men linked to a violent white supremacist group known as The Base. At least three of them were believed to be planning to attend the rally in Richmond, according to a law enforcement official who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss an active investigation.

Herring argued that an executive order by Gov. Ralph Northam banning guns from the state Capitol grounds for Monday's rally is necessary to prevent the kind of violence seen during a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville in 2017. One woman was killed and more than 30 other people were hurt when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters.

"Determined to prevent another tragedy, the Governor issued a carefully limited Executive Order. The Order does not prevent anyone from speaking, assembling, or petitioning the government. Instead, it temporarily precludes private possession of firearms in a sensitive public place during a specified time to protect public safety and safeguard the rights of all citizens to peacefully speak, assemble, and petition their government," the legal brief says.

Herring also argued that the gun rights groups are asking the Supreme Court to "simply disregard the judgment of the Governor and the advice of seasoned law-enforcement officials." Northam said they found credible threats that the rally could include "armed militia groups storming our Capitol."

The ban does not violate the rallygoers' Second Amendment rights, and any restriction is justified by the interests in protecting public safety and safeguarding everyone's constitutional rights, he argued.

It was not immediately clear when the Supreme Court would rule.

The Virginia Citizens Defense League and Gun Owners of America filed an emergency appeal after Judge Joi Taylor ruled Thursday that the governor has the authority under state law to take action related to "the safety and welfare" of the state.

"Without relief from this court, petitioners and thousands of other rally participants will be irreparably denied their right to bear arms," the groups' attorneys argued.

In her written decision, Taylor cited rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts that found the Second Amendment right to bear arms is not unlimited. Because of that, she wrote, the gun-rights groups would not "suffer an irreparable harm" sufficient to justify the injunction.

The three men arrested in Maryland and Delaware were believed to be planning to attend the rally in Richmond, according to a law enforcement official who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss an active investigation.

One of the men had discussed traveling to Ukraine to fight alongside "nationalists" and compared the white supremacist group to al-Qaida, a prosecutor said during the defendants' initial court hearing.

A criminal complaint charges former Canadian Armed Forces reservist Patrik Jordan Mathews, 27, and Brian Mark Lemley Jr., 33, of Elkton, Maryland, with transporting a firearm and ammunition with intent to commit a felony. William Garfield Bilbrough IV, 19, of Denton, Maryland, is charged with "transporting and harboring aliens."

FBI spokesman Kevin Rowson said Friday that agents also assisted in the arrests of three Georgia men linked to The Base, on charges of conspiracy to commit murder and participating in a criminal street gang. Details of their cases have been sealed by a judge, Floyd County police Sgt. Chris Fincher told the AP on Friday. Fincher identified them as Luke Austin Lane of Floyd County, Michael Helterbrand of Dalton, and Jacob Kaderli of Dacula.

Virginia's solicitor general, Toby Heytens, argued at Thursday's hearing that the governor was well within his authority to declare the state of emergency and ban weapons after law enforcement identified "credible evidence" that armed out-of-state groups planned to come to Virginia with the possible intention of participating in a "violent insurrection."

David Browne, an attorney for the gun-rights groups, argued that prohibiting rallygoers from carrying guns would violate their Second Amendment right to bear arms and their First Amendment right to free speech. Browne said carrying guns is a form of symbolic speech.

Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League — the gun-rights group sponsoring Monday's rally — called the judge's ruling "mind-boggling."

Northam applauded the judge's ruling.

"I took this action to protect Virginians from credible threats of violence," he said. "These threats are real — as evidenced by reports of neo-Nazis arrested this morning after discussing plans to head to Richmond with firearms."

A package of gun-control bills has been moving meanwhile through the legislature, which is now in Democratic control. Legislation limiting handgun purchases to once a month, requiring universal background checks on gun purchases, and allowing localities to ban guns in public buildings, parks, and other areas passed the Senate along partisan lines and will now go to the House for consideration.