Gun owners came out in force on both sides of the Potomac on Monday to proclaim their Second Amendment rights, but only those on the Northern Virginia side of the river came bearing their handguns and rifles.
Hundreds of pro-gun activists rallied near the base of the Washington Monument on the National Mall and at Gravelly Point Park in Arlington, Va. Those in the District protested city laws that prohibit them from displaying their guns in public.
The daylong event in the District attracted gun-rights advocates from across the country. They included Mark Easterday from Kentucky and Dick Heller, the event’s keynote speaker and the plaintiff in the landmark 2008 Supreme Court case that overturned the District of Columbia’s restrictive gun laws and established for the first time an individual right to own firearms.
“I’m not the message,” Mr. Heller said. “The people are the message.”
He added that recent moves by Congress and the D.C. government to chip away at his victory “are not an episodic event.”
“This is incremental. You see these kinds of things at every level of government. The larger message today is: We’re still here. We’re not going away and we’re going to fight back,” Mr. Heller said.
Mr. Easterday, 48, said a sense of duty compelled him to drive to Washington from Kentucky’s Hart County with his wife and many of his 16 children.
“Our forefathers died for these rights we take for granted,” said Mr. Easterday, who owns handguns and rifles. “I’ve got nothing against [President] Obama. Bush wasn’t much better. We haven’t had a good president in a long time.”
Speakers at the rallies urged the crowds to support pro-gun candidates in this fall’s midterm elections, particularly in local races to elect sheriffs.
“The Second Amendment should be the litmus test for anybody seeking election,” said Bill Hunt, a candidate for sheriff in Orange County, Calif.
Mr. Hunt compared himself to the embattled sheriff played by Gary Cooper in the film classic “High Noon.”
“They found a tough man and sheriff to run the bad guys out of town,” he roared to the approval of the crowd, assembled on breezy, sunny afternoon. “Let the revolution for constitutional rights go from Orange County, Calif., to Orange County, Fla.”
Organizers said the Northern Virginia event, in which participants carried loaded pistols in holsters and toted unloaded rifles slung over their shoulders, was the first such rally in a national park since Congress earlier this year allowed visitors to carry firearms in national parks.
The Northern Virginia event attracted nearly as many reporters and photographers as demonstrators, and those in the crowd said the mainstream media had come looking for the spectacle of Americans carrying guns in public.
What they found instead, said Burtonsville, Md. resident Bob Culver, 64, was gun owners scrupulously observing Virginia’s gun laws.
“You get a lot of people trying to find the negative aspect,” he said. “We’re trying to get people with a positive image into the public eye.”
Among the signs at the National Mall protest was one that read, “The Constitution isn’t a list of suggestions.” Another, making a veiled reference to what some critics feel about Mr. Obama, read, “The difference between a communist and a socialist is that a socialist doesn’t have all the guns yet.”
Many demonstrators wore bright orange stickers on their shirts that read: “Guns save lives.”
Organizers said the rallies were timed to mark the anniversary of the Revolutionary War battles of Lexington and Concord. They said the date was not chosen to commemorate the 15th anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, which was also observed Monday.
The District’s gun laws are in the spotlight again as the House of Representatives considers a bill this week that would give the city a voting member in the chamber but would undercut the city’s gun control statutes enacted after the 2008 Supreme Court ruling.
Mary G. Wilson, president of the League of Women Voters of the United States, and Billie Day, president of the League’s Washington chapter, called the trade-off a bad deal.
“No one should be under any illusions about how comprehensive and destructive the gun amendments could be if they are adopted as part of final legislation,” the two said in a joint statement Monday. “They not only wipe out D.C. laws designed to protect lives, they also change federal law to allow purchase of weapons across state lines in Virginia and Maryland.”
At the Virginia rally, former Alabama Minutemen leader Mike Vanderboegh told the crowd armed confrontation should be reserved only for instances of the government threatening people’s lives.
However, he said it might be justified if people face arrest for refusing to buy insurance under the health care reform package recently passed by Congress.
“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,” Mr. Vanderboegh said.
Gun control advocate Martina Leinz dismissed Mr. Vanderboegh as a bully.
“If they wanted to have dialogue, they don’t need to bring a big weapon with them,” she said of the protesters.
• Stephen Dinan contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.