Virginia's highest court upholds weapons ban at gun rally

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. (Dean Hoffmeyer/Richmond Times-Dispatch via AP)
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RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Virginia's highest court on Friday upheld a ban on firearms at an upcoming pro-gun rally in the state's capital, an event that authorities feared could erupt in violence at the hands of armed extremists.

The Virginia Supreme Court's decision came a day after gun-rights groups sued to overturn the ban that Gov. Ralph Northam issued earlier this week, citing credible threats of “armed militia groups storming our Capitol.”

The lawsuit and court rulings came as the FBI arrested six men who authorities linked to a white supremacist group known as The Base. At least three of them were planning to attend the pro-gun rally on Monday on the grounds of the state Capitol in Richmond, according to an official who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss an active investigation.

Virginia has become Ground Zero in the nation's raging debate over gun control, as a new Democratic majority in the state legislature has promised to pass an array of restrictions, including universal background checks and a red-flag law.

Gun-rights groups argued the ban would violate their Second Amendment right to bear arms and their First Amendment freedom of speech. But a Richmond judge upheld the ban on Thursday, citing rulings from the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts that the Second Amendment right to bear arms is not unlimited.

Philip Van Cleave, president of the Virginia Citizens Defense League — the group sponsoring the rally — called that ruling “mind-boggling." The group did not respond immediately to the Supreme Court ruling.

In his legal brief to the high court, Herring called Northam's executive order “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 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.

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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.

(Copyright 2020 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.)

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