Some two dozen men and women from the gun rights group Open Carry Texas, armed with rifles and shotguns, sat outside a Dallas-area restaurant earlier this month while four women—members of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a small gun control advocacy organization—ate lunch inside at the Blue Mesa Grill. The group posed for photos in the strip mall parking lot, brandishing their weapons and the American flag. After 15 minutes, they packed up their protest and headed to Hooters.
“It was very unsettling. It was very disturbing,” one of the moms explained two days later in a televised interview. The groups’ founder, Shannon Watts, said patrons were “terrified by what appeared to be an armed ambush.” The hashtag #gunbullies was born.
The incident is the latest headline-grabbing showdown involving open carry activists, who want the unconcealed carrying of firearms to be as normal as holding a cell phone. In groups armed with rifles and Gadsden flags, they’ve demonstrated at the site of President Kennedy’s assassination. They walk alone through state capitol buildings, and Home Depots, baiting police officers and frightening workers and ordinary citizens.
The brazen antics of this mainly libertarian coalition—think of them as the tea partiers of the gun rights’ movement—have had the unlikely effect of placing gun rights groups, law enforcement officials, and control advocates aligned in opposition. Legally, open carry activists are within their rights, protected, as they’re quick to remind their challengers, by the first and second amendment. But when does this type of protest become a menace, to the public’s safety and to the group’s own message of freedom?
Kory Watkins, who organized the armed assembly outside the Texas restaurant, accuses the women of manufacturing fear to garner sympathy. “For them to say they were threatened is a lie. They’re trying to make us look like bullies.” Watkins told The Daily Beast. He says that members of Moms Demand Action confronted 1,200 armed demonstrators at an event at the Alamo last month, waving brooms and saying they were there to clean up the trash. “I’m confused as to why they’re suddenly scared,” he says.
Shannon Watts of Moms Demand Action denies Watkins’ claim, calling it “an outright falsehood.” According to Watts, the moms staged a counter event, one mile away from the Alamo protest. Families with kids were photographed making crafts, playing games, and eating lunch.
Watts says her group thinks most gun groups and owners are responsible. But they aren’t speaking up and so, she says, “irresponsible, dangerous people,” have filled the vacuum.
The Dallas flare-up comes at a time of heightened awareness of mass shootings and sensitivity of what can be the devastating effects of guns. Deadly mass shootings at the Navy Yard in September; at a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school last December; and at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado in the summer of 2012 still burn fresh in the American psyche. Moms Demand Action was, in fact, formed in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, which left 28 people dead, including 20 children. Afterward, President Obama urged Congress to pass gun control measures at the Newtown memorial. Months passed, public interest and outrage waned, and eventually a gun control measure failed in the Senate.
In response to these tragedies, armed open carry activists have only increased their presence—both on the street and online—to demand that citizens and police respect their right to keep and openly bear their weapons, and to lobby for an extension of those rights in some states.
Watkins says he’s had his share of interactions with police—“too many to count”—thanks to his habit of carrying an AK-74, which he says he does for protection and to bring awareness to Texas gun laws. The Lone Star State is one of five where it is expressly illegal to open carry handguns. Texans can, however, carry long guns that include assault-style rifles, as long as the weapons aren’t displayed “in a public place in a manner calculated to alarm.”
A self-described “Liberty Republican,” Watkins is running for the state’s 6th Congressional District seat and thinks there should be no regulation of firearms whatsoever, calling gun permits “an infringement on my rights.” “I don’t want to ask government for permission and I don’t want to have to pay a tax to do something I’m already allowed to do,” he says.
The laws governing open carry are complex and they vary wildly by state and city. Sixteen states currently expressly permit the open carry of firearms—with restrictions—by state statute according to the National Council on State Legislatures. For some 28 other states, the ability to carry a gun unconcealed is legal by omission; because there is no law banning it, citizens are technically free to do it. That makes 44 states where open carry is legal in some form or another and in 29 of these states, no permit or training is required at all, according to John Pierce founder of the advocacy and information site OpenCarry.org.
When it comes to just what types of weapons should be worn in full public view, the open carry movement is fractured. “One of our forum rules is that we don’t allow the discussion of long gun open carry,” says Pierce. Though Pierce cites safety issues including “muzzle control, lack of cover to the trigger guard, et cetera,” he says the long gun issue primarily “distracts from our primary mission which is the open carry of properly holstered handguns.” The Louisiana Open Carry Awareness League explains the ban on its site this way: “One step at a time.”
Of course, some in the open carry community, like Charles Branstrom of Wisconsin, aren’t pleased about being relegated to the fringe. Branstrom, 27, walks through small cities like Appleton and Neenah with an AR-15 pistol and a camera, “to keep police honest,” he says. The most common complaint he hears over his choice to carry a rifle is “We have these rights now, if you do this we will lose them." But he says, “If you can't use your rights they are already gone.”
Branstrom’s carrying has not gone unnoticed. In September, Branstrom, and a friend, Ross Bauman, 22, strapped assault-style weapons to their backs, holstered handguns at their hips, and headed towards the farmer’s market in Appleton. Concerned passersby called 911. “There’s a couple of guys walking around with what looks like machine guns on their backs. I don’t know if they’re real guns or not,” one caller said.
The guns were, of course, very real. And though the owners’ decision to carry them openly is legal, police on the scene held the pair at gunpoint, put them in handcuffs and confiscated their guns and their camera (audio kept rolling). In the interaction, Branstrom is polite, but obstinate. He tells the officer, he is carrying multiple weapons “for protection” and when asked if he thinks bringing guns to a market might cause a problem says, “Yeah, I guess some people don't like guns.”
"It's taking the Second Amendment a little too far,” one officer says on the audio recording of the incident. Neither Branstrom or Bauman were charged or ticketed.
Milwaukee Police Chief Edward Flynn told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "In a post Aurora-Newtown environment, it's a reckless and irresponsible stunt to strut around in public with an assault-style weapon and think police should assume you're well-intentioned.”
At another stop this fall, also taped and posted to YouTube, an exasperated responding officer pleads with Branstrom, again carrying his rifle, this time in a school zone. “Do you realize what you’re doing could cost us, me, my second amendment rights? Because this is so egregious to the general public that it’s going to cause them to make decisions legally that are going to restrain us.”
Branstrom’s antics have attracted attention, but not the kind for which he’s aiming. In response to his Appleton detaining, emails flooded into Mayor Tim Hanna’s office. “As long as there are people with guns walking around this city, my family will not be,” Adam Frederick wrote.
But Branstrom and Watkins are both quick to point out that they have supporters, too. Branstrom says he receives a lot of thanks from military vets for exercising the freedoms they fought for. And Watkins of Open Carry Texas reports success in dealings with Texas law enforcement. “At the very beginning, when this was new, we had a little bit more heat than what we have now,” he says. “They’ve started accepting and supporting what we’re doing.”
Despite reported gains, open carry advocates contend they are battling against a nation of hoplophobes, a term they’ve adopted to mean people with an irrational fear of weapons. Hoplophobes, for instance, panic, and call 911 at the sight of an AR-15 in a grocery store. Rational people, they contend, would take the time to discern whether the person behind the weapon was an actual threat. One gun advocate, NRA commentator who goes by Colion Noir (His real name is Collins Idehen), likened gun panic to a fear of airplanes or clowns. Another NRA voice, Natalie Foster, makes the same argument, equating firearms to spiders.
And so, the logic of open carry goes, regular exposure to armed “good guys”—on the street, at the farmers’ market, at Starbucks—will act as immersion therapy for the needlessly frightened. And if it doesn’t work? If people are still alarmed by the sight of the armed?
“Grow the hell up,” Idehen suggests in one of his many online videos hosted on the NRA’s website. “You don’t have a right to feel safe by taking away or severely limiting people’s means to protect themselves. We aren’t in kindergarten anymore where you’re allowed to wallow in your false sense of importance by limiting other people because of how you think it makes you feel.”
Ian Houston, a gun rights blogger in Eugene, Oregon, says though the extreme open carriers—people in fatigues who stroll through city centers with semi-automatic weapons—might frighten people at first, their efforts are no different from the nonviolent resistance employed by Dr. Martin Luther King in the fight for civil rights a half decade ago.
“It’s a peaceful movement,” Houston says. “The perception of those anti-gun mothers in Texas is they see weapons and they are afraid. And the perception of the people outside is that they see someone who is trying to take away their rights. They’re using those weapons not as a weapon to be violent with, but as a weapon to bring attention to their cause...They’re not using them to be scary. They’re using them as a way to say, look at me, which is what protests are for.”
But, ultimately, guns are not solely symbolic. Even if brandished as a symbol of freedom and expression, they were designed as weapons, and they kill people every day. Any fear that fact might provoke, open carry activists say, will have to be dealt with through education, not a restriction of gun rights.
“Sure I believe people have the right to feel safe. But I feel safer with a firearm on me,” Watkins says.