Gun rights group denied booth, protesting Blacksburg festival

Festival organizers defend decision, locals respond to controversy

BLACKSBURG, Va. – Blacksburg Steppin' Out attracts hundreds of people every year to check out live music, art, crafts and local vendors. This year, however, one political activist group is planning a protest after they were denied a booth at the festival.

The Virginia Citizens Defense League, which lobbies for gun rights and teaches firearm safety, said it was denied a booth at the festival this year.

League President Philip VanCleave was told it’s because the league did not fit in with the festival’s new themes, which include arts and entertainment and health and wellness.

“We expected they would (deny the permit) because we knew this was a charade on their part to lock us out," VanCleave told 10 News in a phone interview.

The league has had a booth at the festival for the past six years or so, VanCleave said, although the group has been the focus backlash in the past from people attending the festival and organizers trying to prohibit weapons.

“Every year, they seem to put up a little bit of a barrier," VanCleave said.

Downtown Blacksburg, Inc., which puts on the festival, told 10 News that the organization redesigned the festival this year to make it more family-friendly and to have a widespread appeal to the community.

A statement to WSLS reads, in part: “the festival re-design simply did not include room for individuals (including political candidates) and organizations whose primary focus is advocacy on political or social causes and issues, regardless of viewpoint or message.”

People in town, including Blacksburg resident Sanford Shepard and Virginia Tech student Victoria French, were split on the issue, 

“There’s all sorts of activist groups that have booths at Steppin’ Out so I don’t know why they would be, you know, neglected or pushed out," Shepard said.

“I’m not pro guns myself but I think everyone has the right to voice their opinion if they're doing it peacefully," said French.

Blacksburg resident Jacob Paul said he supports gun rights and free expression.

“The organizers get their final say," Paul said. "I don’t know if they had a reason or not, but if it was because it was a pro-guns rights group, then I would probably be against that."

VanCleave said the league will still have a presence at the festival, just not behind a booth.

"It’s very frustrating to have to do that kind of battle," VanCleave said. "At the end of the day, we think the message is important and we’re going to get the message out.”

The statement from Downtown Blacksburg, Inc. also reads: 

“While DBI is aware that the VCDL is disappointed and intends to have an informal presence somewhere during or around the festival, that won’t detract from DBI’s mission of putting on a successful and fun community festival for all attendees as it has done for many years.”

The league is planning to protest at the festival by having its members attend as guests and hand out flyers and stickers.

Steppin' Out runs from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Friday, August 2 and from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday, August 3.

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You can watch Lindsey during Virginia Today every weekend or as a reporter during the week!