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Gun Rights Activists' Latest Strategy: Armed Demonstrations

Gun rights advocates have taken to carrying their weapons into the streets, drawing criticism from gun control supporters who say that such methods are unnecessarily provocative.

Chris Way and his son Ryan, 2, participate in a march during South by Southwest in March 2014, an event led by the Austin chapter of the gun rights group Come and Take It.

When advocates for tighter restrictions on guns rallied last week in Austin City Hall, a small group of opponents staged a counter-rally outside, carrying firearms and waving a flag emblazoned with an assault rifle and the caption “Come and Take It.”

Texas gun rights advocates, like their counterparts who argue for gun control, have been increasingly active in the wake of recent mass shootings, organizing hundreds of grassroots demonstrations across the state. Their effort includes a simple strategy: a public display of their weapons — sometimes in front of their opponents.

“You’ve got a group of people who are carrying firearms, kids and women, smiling and waving,” said C.J. Grisham, the founder of Open Carry Texas, which wants lawmakers to allow Texans to openly carry handguns as they can carry long arms. “If we truly meant to hurt anybody, would we draw attention to ourselves by waving flags and smiling? If you think about it logically, the fact that someone is alarmed is unreasonable.”

But the tactics of groups like Open Carry Texas, which mobilizes crowds carrying shotguns, hunting rifles, AR-15s and AK-47s, have drawn criticism from gun control groups like the Texas branch of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Stephanie Lundy, the branch’s spokeswoman, said that almost every time Moms Demand Action meets, “we wind up with armed gunmen in the parking lot.”

“Texas moms are tougher than $3 steak,” she said. “We will not be intimidated by armed anyone.”

In Texas, it is illegal to openly carry handguns, and a license is required to carry a concealed handgun. It is legal to visibly carry a long arm — a shotgun or a rifle — so long as it is not done in a “manner calculated to alarm.”

The definition of that qualifier is subject to interpretation. “We’re totally okay with people carrying their weapons lawfully under the Second Amendment, but the right to bear arms is not an unfettered right,” said Kevin Lawrence, executive director of the Texas Municipal Police Association. “There’s a certain point where law enforcement has a right to step in and say, ‘You’ve crossed the line.’”

Grisham started Open Carry Texas in July after he was charged with refusing to turn his assault rifle over to the police while hiking with his son. Since Grisham founded Open Carry Texas, he said it has hosted or participated in more than 400 demonstrations. It has at least one armed event each week. In October, the group helped organize what it called the “largest armed event at the Alamo since the Battle of the Alamo,” in which hundreds of gun-wielding people demonstrated in downtown San Antonio. Armed demonstrators marched down packed city streets during last month’s South by Southwest festival in Austin.

Grisham and his allies insist that the Constitution guarantees them the right to carry any firearm at any time. But supporters of tighter restrictions — specifically, of universal background checks — on guns find carrying weapons in places like shopping malls or busy city streets ill advised. Even though Moms Demand Action and its members do not have an official stance on the legality of open carry, they are put off by the provocative nature of armed demonstrations.

“This is their response to the massacre of first-graders,” said Kellye Burke, the president of the Texas chapter of Moms Demand Action, referring to the Newtown, Conn., school shootings in 2012. “Think how disgusting that is.”

Moms Demand Action is not retreating. The national group, as part of a recent initiative by former Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York to spend $50 million to build a nationwide grassroots network to curb gun violence, will be canvassing in Texas and other states to inform voters about legislators’ records on gun policy.

Open Carry Texas is also taking its strategy to other states. The group is teaching like-minded gun owners in Oklahoma, Colorado and Arkansas to emulate the armed demonstration phenomenon.

“We’re not out there to bait police officers or to scare the community,” Grisham said. “We wave, we smile, we hand out fliers. If we see someone who seems really nervous, we’ll talk to them.”

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