Virginia AG urges justices to prevent tragic rally violence

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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) – 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.

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 self-avowed 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 argues 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” whom Northam said have found credible threats that Monday’s rally could include “armed militia groups storming our Capitol.”

Herring said the ban does not violate the rallygoers’ Second Amendment rights, and that any restriction is justified by the interests in protecting public safety and safeguarding everyone’s constitutional rights.

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

THIS IS A BREAKING NEWS UPDATE. AP’s earlier story follows below.

A gun-rights group has filed an emergency appeal of a judge’s ruling upholding the Virginia governor’s ban on firearms at a pro-gun rally that’s expected to draw thousands of gun activists to the state Capitol on Monday.

The Virginia Citizens Defense League and Gun Owners of America sought an injunction against the ban, but Judge Joi Taylor ruled Thursday that Gov. Ralph Northam has the authority under state law to take action related to “the safety and welfare” of the state. The group’s lawyers then turned to the Supreme Court of Virginia.

“Without relief from this court, petitioners and thousands of other rally participants will be irreparably denied their right to bear arms,” the groups’ attorneys argue in their appeal.

It was not immediately clear when the court would hear the appeal.

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 judge’s ruling came shortly after the FBI helped police arrest six men they said were 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.

Those three were taken into custody on federal felony charges in Maryland and Delaware, the Justice Department said in a news release. 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.”

F BI 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 ruling in a statement.

“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.”

Virginia senators were debating a package of gun-control bills as the court challenges developed.

The Democrat-led Senate advanced 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. The measures largely passed along partisan lines and will now go to the House for consideration.

Democrats said they were reasonable measures that would improve public safety while respecting the rights of law-abiding gun owners. They said the public had made clear by voting for Democrats in recent elections that new gun laws were needed.

“The citizens in this last two elections have spoken,” said Democratic Sen. Dave Marsden.

Republicans decried the legislation as an assault on the Second Amendment. They said the bill was aimed at appeasing special interest groups and donors such as Democratic presidential hopeful Michael Bloomberg. GOP senators said the new laws would entrap innocent people and do nothing to stop bad actors.

“This may be what you think is safety, but it is not,” said Republican Sen. Bill Stanley.

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Associated Press reporters Alan Suderman in Richmond; Michael Kunzelman in College Park, Maryland; and Mike Balsamo in Washington in contributed to this report.

The Virginia state Capitol building is surrounded by fencing, Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020 in Richmond, Va., in preparation for Monday’s rally by gun rights advocates. Gun-rights groups are asking a judge to block the Virginia governor’s ban on firearms at a massive pro-gun rally scheduled for next week. Gov. Ralph Northam on Wednesday, Jan. 15, announced a state of emergency and banned all weapons from the rally at the Capitol. (Dean Hoffmeyer/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)
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