The grassroots push for Virginia counties to say they won't enforce gun bans even if passed by the state legislature is spreading "like a freight train," with nearly 9 out of 10 counties in the state declaring themselves "Second Amendment sanctuaries" and thousands of people expected to show up for a pro-gun rally in the state capital next month.
"It's been like a freight train," said Philip Van Cleave, whose Virginia Citizens Defense League (VCDL) has helped organize the sanctuary movement. "It started moving and it's moving under its own weight at this point. It's amazing."
Van Cleave said the group is doing everything it can to leverage the energy of the "Second Amendment sanctuary" movement which has swept across the state at breakneck speed the past few weeks. As of Friday, 85 counties, 9 cities, and 17 towns had formally declared themselves sanctuaries, according to the gun-rights group.
If even a fraction of the tens of thousands of people who showed up to county board meetings show up at VCDL's Jan. 20 lobby day rally in Richmond, Van Cleave said it will be the biggest event the group has ever held. He is hopeful that bringing the state's gun-rights supporters, who have shown up in droves for meetings across the state, to the statehouse will send a message to the newly elected Democratic majority and dampen remaining enthusiasm for new gun-control legislation.
Van Cleave said he thinks some lawmakers have underestimated the sanctuary movement.
"The other side doesn't realize the magnitude of what they're looking at," he said. "They truly don't understand it. They think that money's coming in from the National Rifle Association, some big organization is behind this. It's not that at all."
The National Rifle Association has voiced support for the movement on social media but has not been actively organizing its supporters to attend local meetings. VCDL's email blasts have helped inform members about upcoming county meetings, and its "Guns Save Lives" stickers can be seen throughout the gatherings. But Van Cleave says gun groups deserve only modest credit for the quickly spreading movement.
"It's mostly grassroots," he said. "Localities have passed this that weren't even on our radar. It's like a grass fire that the grassroots had started and then we went in and threw some more gasoline and a match on it to make it burn even brighter."
VCDL's rolls have overflowed since the movement began about a month ago. Van Cleave said the group's newsletter has grown from 29,000 subscribers to 34,000. He said the group's membership has nearly doubled.
Van Cleave argues that Democratic gains in last month's election should not be taken as a mandate to pass new gun-control laws because Democrat-controlled districts are now becoming sanctuary counties.
"We're gonna say you've got the partisan map then you've got the gun-owner map," Van Cleave said. "In essence, this is a referendum saying 'no more gun control.' This is clearly not what the election was about and these people want to make sure you understand that. You need to stay away from their gun rights."
The group has seen as many as 1,000 people show up for the annual Richmond rally in the past, but Van Cleave thinks next month's event will draw 10,000 or more.
"We're booking buses like we never did," he said. "Historically, we'd do maybe three buses. We're at nine buses and counting. We've got people booking their own buses, paying for them and booking them."
Van Cleave said he believes lobby day will serve as the culmination of the movement and a warning from gun-rights voters to the new Democratic majority in the statehouse.
"This is how intense this grassroots effort is and how serious people are taking this," he said. "It's not a casual thing and if the general assembly passes gun control, I tell you what, it's not going to fade from people's memory. They really don't want to own the gun control. They need to walk away."