AUSTIN – Murdoch Pizgatti drove home to Dallas quite pleased with himself on Saturday night.
That’s quite the turnaround from earlier in the day. Starting with his event’s scheduled noon start and for the first hour that followed, the co-founder of the Texas gun rights activist organizations Come And Take It America and Don’t Comply had, from an objective standpoint, been pretty badly embarrassed by the circumstances surrounding his group’s scheduled mock mass shooting event at the University of Texas.
With Pizgatti leading them, some 80 gun rights activists were expected to descend on the UT campus on Saturday to prove a point about how gun freedoms should be increased on college campuses in Texas and beyond. First, rifles slung over its shoulders, this group would march along a stretch near the campus, as both a show of strength and as a statement about the legality that gun-carriers in Texas are already afforded. Then, also just on the outskirts of campus and with fake weapons, the demonstrators would perform a "mock mass shooting," which they had earlier in the week described as "flamboyant, exaggerated skits" meant to highlight just how differently (read: safely, in their estimation) things might look if students were more readily armed when facing the dangers of a real mass shooting. Presumably, they would all then leave heroes, having at least pushed along the campus-carry conversation and having possibly changed some minds in the process.
Only, that's not how things went.
Earlier in the week, things looked pretty good, actually. His two groups had, as hoped, earned widespread mainstream media attention in the lead-up to their audacious event. And at his event’s stated parking garage gathering place, all the big names indeed were represented -- The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The NBC Nightly News, Good Morning America and Politico were just a few of the entities responsible for the 50 or so media members milling about, ready to cover his groups’ open carry-focused stunt.
One problem: None of the other gun activist groups invited to participate in the action showed, leaving those media types to outnumber Pizgatti’s group five to one. Worse, the peaceful but vocal protestors lining the Guadalupe Street portion of the planned open carry march that kicked off Pizgatti’s event similarly outmanned his crew—by a factor of at least three. And, almost to a man, the media stopped following the gun activists’ march to interview the counter-protestors once they appeared, leaving Pizgatti and his pals to walk the streets, guns at their hips, almost completely by their lonesome.
It wasn’t good.
But then Pizgatti and his braintrust called an audible that, in their eyes at least, got them their groove back. First, upon completing their march and returning to that parking garage starting point a few blocks removed from campus on the 2400 block of San Antonio Street, they announced to the regrouped media that their groups would be taking an hour-and-a-half lunch break before staging their event on the sidewalk in front of UT’s West Mall at around 2:30 p.m.Then, when the media dispersed—all save for two reporters, this one included—he and his group headed to another part of campus and staged their fake mass shooting scenarios at the intersection of West 27th Street and Whitis Avenue.
There, with UT’s iconic clock tower—which served as site of an actual on-campus mass shooting in 1966, when 25-year-old Charles Whitman, armed with various guns, killed 14 and wounded 32 others—looming in the background, the group played out two scenarios, performing each twice for emphasis.
In the first, two masked men used cardboard cut-outs of handguns and plastic squeeze-bottles of Heinz ketchup to “shoot” six “victims” wearing orange shirts that read “Gun Free UT.” Once fallen, demonstrators outlined their bodies on the sidewalk with chalk.
In the second staging, those same two masked men approached those same six would-be victims only to this time be stopped and “shot” by another player, an alleged Good Guy With A Gun -- a scenario made more likely by the campus-carry recommendations made by the school on Thursday, which concede some to gun activist demands, but still fall short of Pizgatti and his groups' standards.
All the while, Pizgatti narrated the action over a bullhorn from a script, making sure to point out where legislation was and wasn’t getting in the way of safety. By the start of second rendition of the first act, four Austin Police cars and two on-foot officers could be seen nearby, supervising the activity. To hear Pizgatti tell it, the “damage” was done (read: six fake murders committed) long before their arrival.
So, yeah, Pizgatti was pleased at what he thought was a clever bait-and-switch, even if the media was not on hand en masse to witness the fruits of his group’s change of plans.
“Hey,” he said, pleased to the point where he could barely hold back a smile. “You don’t get a flyer with a time and place for a real mass shooting.”
That was a point Pizgatti and his collaborators came up with late in their game. Phoenix Horton, Pizgatti’s brother and co-founder of the two organizations behind the event (“Murdoch Pizgatti” is an alias, Horton concedes), admitted as much while waiting for the rest of the media to arrive for that point to be explained.
“[This wasn’t the plan] at the beginning of the week, no,” Horton said. “But we had audio elements with our demonstration, and if we were being harassed, people wouldn’t hear us. This still proves our point. It’s still a success overall to start that conversation.”
That conversation would come just minutes later as most media members caught wind of the audible, and arrived at the new location to find Pizgatti, Horton and their public relations officer Matthew Short ready to answer their many, frustrated questions. And shortly thereafter, it would for a time be drowned out as a second, separate group of protestors who had hoped to highlight the absurdity of Pizgatti’s simulation by solely focusing on the simulated shooting portion, showed up 100 strong, costumed and armed with fart-noise machines, creating the biggest spectacle yet of the day. A third, calmer protest also took place earlier in the day, a few blocks removed from all of the action at the nearby United Methodist Church, where the Rev. John Elford hosted prayer sessions.
Like Pizgatti, those counter-protestors were too pleased with how the day had played out.
Andrew Dobbs, co-organizer of the fart-abetted group, was happy to have interrupted the madness with his tongue planted in his cheek: “It was a blast—a literal blast,” he said, laughing. “It was a lot of fun. I just wanted to show them how outnumbered they are. [A mass shooting] is so rare for it to even be a legit ongoing fear for people. The media stokes it, but you’re more likely to be hurt by air pollution.” (Fart pun not intended, he admitted.)
UT freshman Graham Houpt was too pleased with how the group he’d protested the earlier march alongside had stolen some of the mock mass shooting clan’s attention: “If I were holding a ridiculous protest like they were, I would not want a group larger than the group I was in coming to speak against it. The much more important part of what happened today, I was a part of. And I’m proud of that.”
Not counting the annoyed media, only two active event participants appeared to leave without smiles.
After participating in the United Methodist Church’s prayer session earlier in the afternoon, the Rev. Beth Magill returned to her offices at the Episcopal Student Center, which just so happened to be located right across the street from where Pizgatti and his groups ended up hosting their presentation. As fart noises and chants blared around her, Magill and Hannah Pommersheim, programming coordinator at the center, carried mops and buckets of soap and water across the street. Then, the proceeded to clean up the chalked body outlines the demonstrators had left behind.
“Demonstrations like that prey on fear,” Magill said solemnly after her work was done. “I thought it was offensive, and disrespectful to all of the mass shooting victims who have already died. This does not help anyone. We need to actually talk to one another about this sort of thing.”