By Jeff Hulbert
With the eyes of the 2A Nation turned toward the land of George Washington, George Mason and Thomas Jefferson, there is new name that has become known outside the boundaries of the Old Dominion.
The gun rights group has played a pivotal role in the surprisingly successful Second Amendment sanctuary campaign playing out over the past two months—a movement that has caught the attention of firearms activists as far away as Alaska.
For the record, the VCDL got its start 25 years ago fighting the Commonwealth’s “May Issue” system—a scheme that parceled out concealed carry permits by way of local favoritism.
Within a year, the VCDL had helped get “Shall Issue” pushed through the General Assembly to provide CCWs to all law-abiding citizens who request them.
Working his way up through the group’s leadership in the mid-1990s was software developer Philip Van Cleave, who soon set about hitching VCDL’s growth to the burgeoning use of emails that were streaming out on the newly-popular world wide web.
Twenty five years later, Virginia’s leading gun rights organization—with Van Cleave at the helm for more than two decades now—is regularly sending out an estimated 35,000 email alerts to rally gun rights supporters to local and statewide activism.
It was in early November—after Democrats had recaptured the Statehouse—that the VCDL leadership sensed the energy of a grassroots Second Amendment sanctuary movement erupting in a far off corner of the state.
As VCDL President Phil Van Cleave tells it, it became his group’s mission to highlight and harness that political prairie fire in a blizzard of VCDL alerts.
Latest sanctuary map with Fauquier and Charles City counties. pic.twitter.com/f7Tl77F3AK
— Phil Van Cleave VCDL (@VCDL_ORG) December 24, 2019
In a remarkable development that has stunned gun control proponents, 87 of Virginia’s 95 counties have now declared that they will ignore any new Second Amendment infringements adopted in 2020 by Bloomberg-financed Statehouse Democrats.
In some county seats as many as 3,000 gun rights supporters have turned out on a single night—with nearly all sporting the orange, VCDL-supplied “Guns Save Lives” stickers—as they pack county meetings.
TTAG sat down with Phil Van Cleave earlier this week for an extended interview to discuss the “freedom wave” that has washed over Virginia in the last seven weeks, and to talk about future demonstrations, lobbying, the militia involvement, a possible statehouse grounds gun ban, and the explosive subject of political compromise on the Second Amendment.
The Truth About Guns: How many members are there in the VCDL, and how many do you reach with your ALERT emails?
Philip Van Cleave: We were at 8,000 members when all of this hit, but we think we are probably doubled by now over the last month or so. We are sitting at close to 16,000 by now. And the email reach, that was at 29,000. Now it’s at 35,000…up 6,000 in the last month.
TTAG: Do you think Virginia’s Governor and his fellow Democrats have overreached with their gun control plans?
PVC: Absolutely. Everything he has put in is affecting law-abiding citizens— and not going after criminals—and so this is strictly paying back Michael Bloomberg.
TTAG: At what point did the VCDL latch onto the Second Amendment sanctuary movement?
PVC: It was just after Election Day [on November 5th]. Two counties in the far southwest [of Virginia] started it and we looked at it and said, you know, this is the way to go in Virginia. This is truly grassroots. This is people talking to people, saying we’ve had enough.
We said this is great and we love this, and then we got involved. We got to the 29,000 people that we email, and [the sanctuary movement] started spreading like wildfire.
This is totally grassroots. That is what the Democrats don’t understand. This is not AstroTurf like Bloomberg, where he pays people to do this. These are everyday people taking off work or doing whatever they have to do in huge numbers to say no more gun control. The Democrats don’t get it.
TTAG: In the wake of Democrats gaining control of the Virginia House and Senate, were you surprised at how many counties and towns have voted to embrace the Second Amendment sanctuary movement?
PVC: Yes, I am surprised at the intensity. It is wonderful. We were screaming [before November] this year is different!” and you guys gotta vote, and people where not listening. Now, they’re listening, in big numbers.
TTAG: Has the VCDL been sending out leadership teams to every county?
PVC: I have shown up at a lot of counties and a lot of our executive members—of which we have 60— have gone to different counties to show support but we did not have coordination in place. We put out the “Alerts”. Those spread, people knew the times to show up and they showed up! We were a player in this, but we were not the driving force. That’s what’s incredible about this.
TTAG: When did the VCDL start conducting the annual January “Lobby Day” activities at the statehouse?
PVC: I want to say it was in the early 2000s.
TTAG: How many gun rights supporters do you think will turn out January 20th in Richmond for your next Lobby Day, which is a Monday federal holiday?
PVC: Fifty thousand, to one hundred thousand. We’ve got buses coming from all parts of the state. Normally we do, like, three buses. There’s probably like 20 buses coming this time. And it is also out-of state people coming to stand with us and show support. I think the police are looking at a minimum of 30,000 people. I think they are definitely low on how many are coming.
TTAG: Who are the big names who will be speaking in Richmond on January 20th?
PVC: We have Steven Willeford— he used an AR-15 to stop a massacre in Texas. We have Dick Heller of [the landmark court case] Heller v. DC. We have Sheriff Scott Jenkins of Culpeper, who said he would deputize everybody if the Democrats were going to take their guns away—he would deputize them so they couldn’t. This list is growing and I think we are going to have two hours of speakers.
TTAG: If, on January 8th, the Statehouse Democrats ban any citizens from visiting the Capitol complex while armed, will you move the January 20th Lobby Day event to the public streets outside the fence?
PVC: There’s nowhere to move it. We’d have nowhere to move it without breaking laws. Those streets are all controlled by the city of Richmond. They’d have to give us permission to do that.
Yeah, I mean it’s always possible police might just say you own the street, but we would not push that I don’t think. Our long-term goal is to play by the rules.
So what they might do is have a rule that says “you can’t carry here”, which means if they found out you were carrying they would ask you to leave and if you didn’t leave they could charge you with trespass.
TTAG: Is it possible, then, you might have two rallies—a rally inside the fence with no openly carried firearms, and people lining the sidewalks outside the fence of the Statehouse grounds carrying their guns in plain view?
PVC: Our [armed citizens] may be lined up all the way down the street. I mean, we will be looking down a long street and they may be lining it all the way down. The trouble is, will the speaker system reach that far? We don’t really know, but I am going to put out the legal advice to our members and say here’s the deal, and tell them what the rules would be.
TTAG: Will there be a campaign to try to turn out gun rights supporters to testify at the Gun Bill Day hearings now scheduled by the Democrats on January 13th?
PVC: I am trying to get supporters out for every day that there are any hearings. Prior to this we didn’t need a big turnout for the meetings of the committees and sub-committees. That’s gonna change. Now I am hoping we are going to flood these rooms. We’ll have a massive turnout for that, yeah.
TTAG: Why have you asked all militia groups gathering at the Statehouse on the January 20th Lobby Day to consider leaving their long guns at home?
It’s just that we want the focus on our message. It happens every time: the media sees somebody carrying a long gun—especially and AR or AK—and they go running over to them taking photos and talking to them.
Everything we are saying is lost in the wash because the media is not listening to us—they are trying to get pictures of somebody carrying a rifle. We don’t want the distraction. That’s what it boils down to.
The [militias] are coming and we say if you want to help VCDL, dress mission appropriate. Don’t come with rifles. Bring handguns if you want, and help us lobby. This is not a protest. This is a lobby day.
TTAG: What do you make of the Democrats’ claim that the VCDL and the Second Amendment sanctuary movement in Virginia has dangerously energized militia groups—not only in Virginia—but across the country?
PVC: I say that it is the Governor, and Senator Saslaw [with his confiscation bill], and Congressman McEachin [suggesting that the National Guard be called out to enforce gun laws] that have activated the militias and everybody else.
It’s not us. It’s them. They are the ones that have lit the circuits up for all the gun owners by threatening them. We are not a militia. We don’t have any connections to them. Yeah, [Democrats] did it, this is their fault.
TTAG: Is the VCDL concerned about anti-gun groups showing up, like ANTIFA?
PVC: Well, the anti-gun groups always show up. ANTIFA has never, so far, shown up at anything we’ve ever done and this may be a change to that. If they do, they do. That’s what we have police for, if they cause any trouble.
TTAG: With the Democrats appearing now to backpedal on radical gun control and confiscation plans, what is the VCDL response to their expected fallback position—-that only current owners of scary black rifles can possess them in the future?
PVC: No compromise on any of that! If a gun control bill in any way shape or form makes a law-abiding gun owner jump through another hoop, or give up any of his guns, give up his magazines, or adds any more restrictions the answer is no.
There is no compromise on that. We are just saying no. If they put in a bill to deal with criminals, or to help with mental health, we will back them on it.
TTAG: Are you surprised that this gun rights conflict is taking place in Virginia rather than Massachusetts, New York or California?
PVC: Not really. All those states, gun owners are used to having very few rights. We have a long-running history with gun rights. If it had to start somewhere, Virginia makes sense. It’s started here last time. We will start it here again.
TTAG: And finally, do you think Richmond Democrats were caught off guard by the freedom wave in Virginia this month because they were spending too much time in their wine caves?
PVC: (Laughs) They were spending too much time talking to Bloomberg on a yacht. I don’t know what they were doing, but the [2A sanctuary movement] really caught them off guard.
The Democrats really set off a firestorm. They are the reason all this is happening. They cannot blame anyone but themselves.
A lot of Democrats own guns and their comes a point when you look at something and say, these people don’t represent me anymore. No way we are going to give up the gun rights for the next generation. Can’t do that. I have no authority to do that. Those AR-15s are going to belong to the next generation. We are not going to let [a ban] happen on our watch.
Jeff Hulbert is founder of the Patriot Picket.