When your movement’s main cause is making guns a part of the everyday experience and your modus operandi includes parading the streets with Gadsden flags and assault rifles, engaging in an online war with a group of moms, and outing anyone who dares to call 911 in fear, the last thing you need is dissension in the ranks.
But a lack of cohesion in the open-carry movement is threatening to undermine its central cause, and gun rights groups such as the 20,000-member Open Carry Texas have suffered several recent defeats. As of Monday, Chipotle joined Starbucks and Jack in the Box in banning the open carry of guns in their stores.
“Recently participants from an ‘open carry’ demonstration in Texas brought guns (including military-style assault rifles) into one of our restaurants, causing many of our customers anxiety and discomfort,” the restaurant said in a statement. “Because of this, we are respectfully asking that customers not bring guns into our restaurants, unless they are authorized law enforcement personnel.”
Along with Open Carry Texas, Texas Carry, and the aptly named Come and Take it Texas, Open Carry Tarrant County is fighting, sometimes at cross purposes with the others, to strengthen and exercise their Second Amendment rights in public. “To each his own, as long as we’re on the same boat fighting for the same message,” said Kory Watkins, a spokesman for Tarrant County.
“They’re their own organization,” said C.J. Grisham, who leads the larger Open Carry Texas organization, of Watkins’s group. “We do things the way that works for us and they do things the way that works for them…There are people that don’t agree they should have to call the police when they go out and do an armed event. And we do.”
Grisham was alluding to a recent kerfuffle at a Fort Worth Jack in the Box, where members of Open Carry Tarrant County were accused of frightening employees after showing up armed and unannounced. Workers were first said to have hidden in the freezer, but later photos showed activists posing with the manager, and a representative for the company denied the freezer claim.
Chipotle “simply said they would like us not to [carry guns], which doesn’t mean that we can’t,” Watkins said.
Local media reported this month that Grisham’s group was making a hard split from Tarrant County over the negative attention, including an earlier skirmish with the Arlington City Council. Contacting police before a protest “is one of those things that we’ve been in discussions with them about since the Arlington ordeal with the City Council,” Grisham told the Dallas-Fort Worth CBS affiliate at the time. “I think the Jack in the Box incident was probably the [culmination] of that discussion.”
But Open Carry Tarrant County is still listed as a member of Open Carry Texas’s “coalition” on its website, and Watkins was made an administrator of Open Carry Texas’s Tarrant County Chapter just two weeks ago. For his part, Watkins says the breakup was “blown out of proportion.”
People outside the gun debate, including members of the media, might find it hard to follow the intricate network of open-carry organizations within the state of Texas and beyond, and could lump them together. That tendency, Grisham told The Daily Beast, is partly to blame for the flak Open Carry Texas has taken for the actions of other groups.
With such similar goals, joining forces would make sense, but “the problem is tactics,” he said.
That difference in tactics was apparent in the way the groups responded to Chipotle’s request that they leave their guns at home.
“We’re going to honor what Chipotle put out. We’re not going to carry our guns if we aren’t welcome. We just won’t go to Chipotle,” said Grisham, adding, “Our members refuse to eat anywhere where we can’t defend ourselves.”
Watkins, whose group was not a part of the demonstration Chipotle referred to in its statement, called the chain’s decision “a smart one” but said it won’t stop him from enjoying a burrito with his family and his rifle. Chipotle “simply said they would like us not to [carry guns], which doesn’t mean that we can’t,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that they banned it or anything. It just means that they want to shut up people who are complaining about it.”
“The manager at the Chipotle in Arlington, she told us last night, ‘Come back any time,’ so it’s no problem,” he added. “We have a Jack in the Box in Arlington. The managers there love us, and after the whole Jack in the Box thing, they’ve let us back in a couple of times. So it’s not a ban. It’s just a way to shut up the people who were bullying them into submission.”
While new open-carry groups pop up and old organizations splinter, the gun control movement has found strength in partnerships. In December, Moms Demand Action for Gunsense in America, a group founded after the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting, joined forces with Michael Bloomberg’s Mayors Against Illegal Guns, and the two now operate under the “Everytown” banner, with the former New York City mayor pledging $50 million for the effort this year.
Watkins acknowledges the benefits of that type of partnership—“There’s definitely strength in numbers”—but says: “They’ve got a lot of money and stuff behind them, but we’ve got a lot of boots on the ground and I think that will prevail.”