Armed Demonstrators Leave Richmond Mayor With Tough Decision

It was only six months ago that tens of thousands of gun owners crowded into downtown Richmond, Virginia, to rally in opposition to Gov. Ralph Northam’s gun control proposals, including a bill that would allow local governments to ban firearms on public property. Few of the gun owners in attendance at the time, myself included, likely remembered that in July of 2019, the Richmond city council approved the ban, with the provision that the ordinance not take effect until state law had changed. At the time, it was seen largely as a symbolic vote and a political stunt before a special session of the legislature called by Northam after the Virginia Beach shooting.

Republicans, who were then in control of the state legislature, adjourned without approving any new gun control laws, but Democrats passed a half-dozen gun control bills, including the bill allowing localities to ban guns in public buildings and parks when they took control of the state legislature last November. Now we’re just days away from the July 1st effective date of that new law, and Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney is suddenly faced with a thorny political question: does he dare enforce the law if it disarms protesters largely on the Left?

The Richmond Times-Dispatch reports today that an unknown number of armed citizens are “patrolling” the grassy circle where the city’s statue of Robert E. Lee has become a focal point of protests, and they say they aren’t going anywhere.

A .45-caliber handgun was tucked in the waistband of Jasmine Kelley’s shorts Sunday night as she stood outside the Robert E. Lee statue on Monument Avenue. She purchased it for about $475 last week, and it hasn’t been fired yet.

As the protests against racial prejudice began three weeks ago, Kelley, 29, quickly decided her role would be to protect others. She started by calling other protesters to check on their safety. Then, they were given walkie-talkies so they could communicate faster. Then, other protesters started showing up with guns in an effort to protect others.

Now, as groups assemble around the Lee statue every day in what has become a campground-like environment, a loosely organized group of men and women with handguns and rifles patrol the area, intent on keeping visitors safe. They chose not to divulge how many armed participants they have, except to say there are “plenty.”

Now, I don’t have a problem with this, but I’m not the city’s anti-gun mayor or a member of its anti-gun city council. They clearly do have issues with citizens lawfully carrying firearms in parks and other public places, so what happens on July 1st when their gun ban takes effect? Will they start arresting the armed protesters at the Lee statue? Or will they decide that even though the law is now in effect, there’s no need to enforce it?

Lee Circle isn’t a Richmond version of Seattle’s CHAZ (or CHOP, or whatever they’re calling it today), but it has been the center of most of the protests, and if violence is going to flare anywhere in the city, that’s the most likely spot. Tensions became tense on Sunday evening a short distance away as police moved in after protesters tried to tear down a statue of Confederate general J.E.B. Stuart, and a protest scheduled for Tuesday evening to “Take the City Back” encouraged attendees to “Make Noise, Wear Black, Bring Attitude.”

I’m sure Mayor Levar Stoney and city council members would love to legally disarm the protesters carrying guns, but any arrest would undoubtably cause tensions to flare even higher than they are at the moment. If the city could remove the Lee statue on July 1st, when another new law takes effect giving localities the authority to remove Confederate monuments, it might cause the crowds to disperse, including the armed citizens, and removing the need to enforce the law. However, there’s a court challenge to the removal underway, and a judge has issued a restraining order blocking the city from removing the statue for the time being.

That leaves Mayor Stoney in a difficult situation. Last year when the city passed what many believed at the time to be a largely symbolic vote, the mayor proclaimed that city leaders had “showed the spine to act.” Now the question is whether Stoney will show his spine once again and enforce the law that he demanded, or if he’ll look the other way at violations for purposes of political expediency.

I suspect that Stoney will develop a sudden case of amnesia in the coming days and forget all about the city council’s actions last year. After all, Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan has turned a blind eye to the countless violations of Washington State gun laws at CHAZ over the past week, so Stoney wouldn’t be the first Democrat mayor to inadvertently give approval to the idea of Second Amendment Sanctuaries where some gun laws are just ignored by local governments. It may be the height of hypocrisy, but I’d say it’s also the most likely outcome.

**UPDATE**

As it turns out, the Lee statue is the one Confederate monument in the city that is under the control of the state government instead of the municipal authorities, which means that it’s not up to Mayor Stoney to enforce the city’s new ordinance against armed citizens at that particular statue. Well, on Monday evening, the state of Virginia imposed a new dusk-to-dawn prohibition on public gatherings at the Lee statue, though protesters were defying the order shortly after sundown. Other demonstrators have set up a new protest zone right across from City Hall that they’re dubbing “Reclamation Square.”

Not only is the new encampment clearly on city-owned property, it sounds like the protesters aren’t planning on going anywhere.

Before 7 p.m., eight tents had been set up on East Marshall between North Ninth and North 10th streets. Bikes and cars encircled the gathering.

“Our guiding principle is, ‘Black liberation by any means necessary,’” the pamphlet read.

What happens at the Lee statue may be Ralph Northam’s problem, but what happens at “Reclamation Square” is squarely Mayor Stoney’s responsibility, and if demonstrators plan on being there for the long haul, undoubtably there’ll soon be armed citizens patrolling that area as well. In other words, Mayor Levar Stoney is still going to have a difficult decision to make in the days to come; enforce his new gun control law against demonstrators, or make a mockery of the state’s gun control movement that pushed so hard to get the law on the books in the first place.