RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Virginia urged the state Supreme Court on Friday to uphold a weapons ban at an upcoming gun rally in the capital, insisting it was necessary to prevent a repeat of deadly violence that erupted at a white nationalist rally more than two years ago.
State Attorney General Mark Herring's petition - and simultaneous legal efforts by gun-rights groups to lift the ban - came amid the arrest of six men whom authorities linked to white supremacist groups. At least three of them were planning to attend the pro-gun rally on Monday in Richmond, according to an official who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss an active investigation.
The FBI said the men were linked to a violent white supremacist group known as The Base. In encrypted chat rooms, members of The Base have discussed committing acts of violence against blacks and Jews, ways to make improvised explosive devices, their military-style training camps and their desire to create a white "ethno-state," according to an FBI agent's affidavit accompanying a criminal complaint against three men who were charged in Maryland.
In his legal brief to the Supreme Court, Herring called Northam's executive order banning guns from the Capitol grounds "a carefully limited Executive Order" that "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," the brief says.
Herring argued Gov. Ralph Northam's order would help prevent the kind of violence that erupted at a 2017 white nationalist rally in the city of Charlottesville. One woman was killed and more than 30 others were hurt when a white supremacist drove his car into a crowd. No one was wounded by gunfire at the rally.
A circuit court judge on Thursday upheld Northam's ban after gun-rights groups filed a lawsuit against it, arguing that it would violate their Second Amendment right to bear arms and their First Amendment freedom of speech.
Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League - the group sponsoring the rally - called the judge's ruling "mind-boggling." The Defense League and the organization Gun Owners of America immediately filed an appeal of the ruling to the Supreme Court. It was not clear when the high court would rule.
In imposing the ban Wednesday, Northam said law enforcement officials has found credible threats that the rally could include "armed militia groups storming our Capitol."
Virginia's solicitor general, Toby Heytens, told Richmond Circuit Court Judge Joi Taylor on Thursday that law enforcement had identified "credible evidence" armed out-of-state groups planned to come to Virginia with the possible intention of participating in a "violent insurrection."
Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, a nonprofit advocacy looking to curb gun violence, told reporters on a conference call Friday that online threats against the group's employees and volunteers have also increased, comparable to what they've seen previously in the run-up to large pro-gun rallies.
She noted that many of the expected rally participants are not Virginia residents, while those who harbor the most extreme views represent "just a very vocal minority."
"Their views are not representative of the majority of Virginians," she said. "In fact, many aren't even from Virginia."
Of the six men arrested by the FBI, one had discussed traveling to Ukraine to fight alongside "nationalists" and compared the white supremacist group to al-Qaida, a prosecutor said in court Thursday.
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."
I n Georgia, Luke Austin Lane of Floyd County; Michael Helterbrand of Dalton and Jacob Kaderli of Dacula were arrested on charges of conspiracy to commit murder and participating in a criminal street gang. The men's identities were released by Floyd County police Sgt. Chris Fincher. FBI spokesman Kevin Rowson said Friday that agents assisted in the arrests of the men.
As state officials and gun-rights groups battle over the ban in court, a package of gun-control bills is moving through the legislature, which is now in Democratic control.
The Senate on Thursday passed 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 bill was passed along partisan lines. It will now go to the House for consideration.
Associated Press reporters Alan Suderman in Richmond; Michael Kunzelman in College Park, Maryland; Jeff Martin in Atlanta; Jonathan Drew in Raleigh, North Carolina; and Mike Balsamo in Washington in contributed to this report.