Fact Check

Did Virginia Declare a State of Emergency Ahead of Pro-Gun Rallies?

An executive order signed by the governor mentioned the need to prevent violence akin to what happened in Charlottesville 2017.

Published Jan 20, 2020

RICHMOND, VIRGINIA - JANUARY 20: Thousands of gun rights advocates attend a rally organized by The Virginia Citizens Defense League on Capitol Square near the state capitol building January 20, 2020 in Richmond, Virginia. During elections last year, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam promised to enact sweeping gun control laws in 2020, including limiting handgun purchase to one per month, banning military-style weapons and silencers, allowing localities to ban guns in public spaces and enacting a 'red flag' law so authorities can temporarily seize weapons from someone deemed a threat. While event organizers have asked supporters to show up un-armed, militias and other extremist groups from across the country plan to attend the rally and show their support for gun rights. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) (Getty Images)
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The state of Virginia declared a state of emergency ahead of pro-gun rallies in Richmond, Virginia.

Three years after white supremacist violence left one counter-protester dead and scores injured in Charlottesville, Virginia, that state's Gov. Ralph Northam declared a temporary state of emergency ahead of a pro-gun rally at the state Capitol in Richmond on MLK day in 2020.

Some Snopes.com readers asked whether the emergency order was real. It was.

According to news reports, protests at that Capitol are an annual event known as Lobby Day, in which "citizen activists, including those on both sides of the gun debate, converge on the Capitol to press issues directly to lawmakers." This year was different, however, because for the first time in a generation, voters handed the Virginia Legislature to a Democratic majority. Lawmakers have stated they will take the opportunity to pass gun regulations, sparking a conservative backlash.

The organizer of the Jan. 20 rally is a self-described extremist, but had stated his intent to keep the event peaceful. Nevertheless, Northam expressed concern over fears that armed militia members planned to "storm the capitol."

Tactical gear-clad, gun-toting demonstrators gathered outside security perimeters, but no violence was reported at the rally. Officials estimated about 22,000 attended.

Ahead of the event, the FBI had arrested six men allegedly connected to a white supremacist organization known as "the Base" in Delaware, Maryland, and Georgia. Three of those men allegedly had discussed opening fire during the Richmond gun rally for the purpose of creating chaos.

The executive order banned firearms on Capitol grounds and activated emergency services, noting, "The events that occurred in Charlottesville, Virginia demonstrated what can happen when peaceful demonstrations are hijacked by those who come into the Commonwealth and do not value the importance of peaceful assembly. We lost three Virginians. We must take all precautions to prevent that from ever happening again."

The executive order also noted that some of the intelligence gathered by law enforcement echoed sentiments in the days leading up to Charlottesville: "Available information suggests that a substantial number of these demonstrators are expected to come from outside the Commonwealth, may be armed, and have as their purpose not peaceful assembly but violence, rioting, and insurrection."

In August 2017, white supremacist demonstrators gathered in Charlottesville for a "Unite the Right" rally. Three people died during the event, including counter-protester Heather Heyer, who was struck by a car driven by a white supremacist who rammed it into a crowd. Two Virginia state troopers were killed when the helicopter they were flying to monitor the crowds crashed.


Kamp, Jon, et al. "Men Discussed Opening Fire at Pro-Gun Rally in Richmond, Officials Say."   Wall Street Journal. 17 January 2020.

Schuppe, Jon. "Virginia Declares Emergency as Tensions Escalate Over Gun-Rghts Rally."   NBC News. 15 January 2020.

Bethania Palma is a journalist from the Los Angeles area who started her career as a daily newspaper reporter and has covered everything from crime to government to national politics. She has written for ... read more