ARLINGTON, Va. - Carrying loaded pistols and unloaded rifles, dozens of gun-rights activists got as close as they could Monday to the nation's capital while still bearing arms and delivered what they said was a simple message: Don't tread on me.
Hundreds of like-minded but unarmed counterparts carried out a separate rally in the nation's capital.
The gun-carrying protesters in Virginia rallied on national park land, which is legal thanks to a new law signed by President Barack Obama that allows guns in national parks. Organizers said it's the first armed rally in a national park since the law passed.
The District of Columbia's strict gun laws, however, generally make it illegal to carry a handgun, so rally participants there were unarmed.
Daniel Almond, who organized the "Restore the Constitution" rally in Virginia, said he wanted to convene in a place where "we can exercise our rights." He pointed in the direction of Washington and said, "Over there, the Constitution is being violated in that we cannot bear arms."
Among the speakers in Virginia was former Alabama Minuteman leader Mike Vanderboegh, who has been denounced in recent weeks after calling for citizens to throw bricks through the windows of local Democratic party headquarters across the country. Several such incidents occurred after Vanderboegh issued his call.
Vanderboegh said the broken windows are a wake-up call that many people feel threatened by an expanding federal government.
"We are done backing up. Not one more inch," Vanderboegh said to cheers, after telling the crowd that for too long Americans have acquiesced at the loss of liberty.
In an interview, Vanderboegh said he considers armed resistance justified only "when they send people to our doors and kill us."
But he suggested that an arrest at the hand of federal government is tantamount to a death sentence and that he would fight back in such a case. Specifically, he outlined a scenario in which people who refuse to buy health insurance under the new health reform law would be subject to arrest and that such confrontations could turn violent.
"If I know I'm not going to get a fair trial in federal court ... I at least have the right to an unfair gunfight," Vanderboegh said.
After his speech, gun control advocate Martina Leinz confronted Vanderboegh and called him a "small, little bully" and said the rally was designed to intimidate.
"If they wanted to have dialogue, they don't need to bring a big weapon with them," she said of the protesters.
The rally began in Fort Hunt Park and moved to Gravelly Point in Arlington, next to Reagan National Airport and just south of the nation's capital, with the Washington Monument and the U.S. Capitol in the backdrop. Departing planes frequently drowned out speakers, and reporters nearly outnumbered rally participants.
Ken Garvin of Newville, Pa., said he had never before attended such a rally but came Monday because he believes the government is out of control. He stressed that the people attending the rally "are not a bunch of crazed thugs. ... They're just people." He said all sides need to listen to each other's viewpoints.
"I don't hate the left. I just don't understand where they're coming from," he said.
Wes Wdzieczny of Essex, Md., said people are unduly alarmed if they see rallies like these as promoting violence.
"I don't think anyone here has delusions of storming the Capitol. ... People are just basically fed up," he said.
In Washington, signs reading "Which part of 'shall not be infringed' confuses you?" and bright orange stickers saying "Guns save lives" dotted the crowd at the Washington Monument.
Organizer Skip Coryell said he chose the date to mark the anniversary of the Revolutionary War battles of Lexington and Concord, and dismissed any associations with the actions of Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. The bombing occurred on April 19, 1995.
"I think there are some people out there who have an agenda and they want to paint us as gun-toting, lunatic, militia types, and we're not that way," Coryell said.
The event also attracted 78-year-old Audrey Smith of Clearfield, Pa., who said she and a group of local Tea Party activists traveled to show their solidarity.
"We'll support anything that is in jeopardy of being taken out of our Constitution," Smith said.
U.S. Rep. Jim Moran, D-Va., said in a statement that armed protests in national parks were a public safety concern. He also said that while the Second Amendment has become a rallying point for gun rights activists, "virtually every action the federal government has taken in the past decade has weakened commonsense gun laws already on the books."