People dressed in fatigues, carrying military-style assault weapons, walking around telling people they are there to keep the peace are likely breaking Virginia law, Attorney General Mark Herring wrote in a formal advisory opinion.
Herring issued the opinion Friday in response to a request from Del. Charniele Herring, D-Alexandria, who sought clarification on the law following the special session related to guns last month in Richmond. As people waited in line outside a building to speak to legislators, several heavily armed men stood outside dressed in military garb. Herring said it could be unlawful for people to “assume the functions” of a law enforcement agency, whose job it is to safeguard people and property and preserve peace.
“By your account, the militia members patrolled a line of citizens waiting to engage with legislators and projected authority to manage the crowd,” Herring wrote in his opinion.
Herring said people have a right to bear arms and assemble, but that a “well regulated militia” provided in Article 1 of the Virginia Constitution is under the control of the civilian government. Herring said that militia members engaging in crowd control or claiming to be securing a public area are usurping law enforcement’s role.
“The private militias we saw purporting to be police outside of the General Assembly building during the gun violence special session were there to intimidate Virginians from exercising their right to meet with their representatives,” the attorney general said in a statement about his opinion.
Del. Charniele Herring had similar concerns about militia members attending the meeting of the Virginia State Crime Commission next week, when legislators will discuss gun control.
Mark Herring said he hopes his opinion will aid law enforcement by helping them better understand how to handle private militia groups when they show up to events.
Militia members attended the Unite the Right rally two years ago in Charlottesville. The armed men in body armor said they were there to protect everyone’s right to assemble and free speech.
At times, they intervened when physical violence broke out and law enforcement had lost control.
“Seeing a group of people all dressed alike in military garb and carrying large assault-style weapons, like the white supremacist militia and paramilitary activity we saw in Charlottesville, can be intimidating and terrifying,” Herring wrote in his statement.