Open Carry Activists Bear Arms In The Streets — And Chipotle

As part of the open carry movement, some gun rights activists in Texas have been carrying loaded rifles into restaurants to assert their second amendment rights. A growing list of national chains has pushed back, though, instituting no-guns policies in response. Even the National Rifle Association has publicly rebuked the Texas long-gun enthusiasts. NPR's John Burnett covers a street demonstration by a particularly aggressive chapter of the open carry movement in Fort Worth, Texas.

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CORNISH: And I'm Audie Cornish. In Texas, some gun advocates are fighting for the right to openly carry firearms in public. They're making their point by demonstrating with loaded rifles on sidewalks and even inside businesses. And the tactic may be backfiring. Lately, major restaurant chains have asked their customers to leave their guns at home, and as NPR's John Burnett reports, even some firearm defenders say the approach is counterproductive.

JOHN BURNETT, BYLINE: Once a week, members of A Second Amendment group gather somewhere in the Fort Worth area to stage an armed walkabout. Before they start marching, there's a pep talk.

CORY WATKINS: If we come encounter with somebody who doesn't really support our cause, diffuse the situation. Remember, armed society is a polite society. We're not going to talk back to nobody, or tell them, you know, you probably voted Obama - screw you. Nothing like that.

BURNETT: The speaker is thirty-one-year-old, square jawed utility employee, bartender and gun lover, named Cory Watkins. He leads what's become one of most strident gun rights groups in the country, Open Carry Tarrant County. The group spreads out along a busy road in the suburban city of Hurst. Some carry flags that say, come and take it. Most of them are shouldering civilian semiautomatic versions of military assault weapons, such as the AR 15 and AK 47. Some drivers glower silently at them, others honk their approval. The 30 or so demonstrators are mostly male. Some wear camo. Some have Ron Paul slogans. A few are veterans. An automotive technician, named Robert Perez, says he's out here to exercise his constitutional rights as a gun owner.

ROBERT PEREZ: But I also want to educate the people in Texas of the carry of long rifles openly. So that way maybe we can get them to understand that - not to be afraid of what's going on here. Also, we want to be able to open carry our handguns.

BURNETT: While openly carrying a rifle is not illegal in Texas, walking around with a pistol is. Texas is one of only five states that do not allow open carry of a handgun. Marchers want to desensitize people about being around weapons and generate popular support to change the law allowing the open carry of handguns. Their ultimate goal - they believe an armed society is a safer society. But is this the best way to go to about it?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: I have a group of eight to 10 gentlemen out front on the sidewalk. They say that they are doing a Second Amendment protest. But they all seem to be rather well armed. It's scaring customers from coming in and it's scaring the customers that are in here.

BURNETT: This is a recent 911 call in Austin from a restaurant manager to the police. In a series of highly publicized demonstrations, open carry activists took their guns into national restaurant chains in several Texas cities and asked to be served. So far, Starbucks, Jack-in-the-Box, Chile's, Sonic and Chipotle have all issued statements asking customers to disarm before ordering. Jon Stewart picked up on one of the incidents in his nightly commentary.

JON STEWART: Now, we all know the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is good guy with the gun. But here's the problem with open carrying of assault rifles. No one else in that Chipotle knows you're a good guy. They just know you have a gun.

BURNETT: Given the reality of continuing mass shootings in America, there's a reasonable presumption that some people will be unnerved when they encounter young men with high caliber weapons. Yet, Cory Watkins with Open Carry Tarrant County insists that most restaurants have welcomed them. The managers were cool. The customers were cool. And if some people don't like it...

WATKINS: It shouldn't violate my rights because somebody's scared of something, you know. There's people scared of spiders.

BURNETT: These armed demonstrations remain controversial, even within the gun rights community. Last week, the NRA's lobbying arm said, a small number of people in Texas's robust gun culture have recently crossed the line from enthusiasm to downright foolishness. The president of Open Carry Texas, C.J. Grisham, was incensed.

CJ GRISHAM: The NRA is speaking on something that they have no idea what they're talking about. They don't know how we do the things that we do.

BURNETT: Grisham points out that Open Carry Texas now discourages members from taking their rifles into businesses. It's better to stay outside on the sidewalk. After the pushback a few days later, the NRA reversed itself and now praises the rifleman. Alice Tripp, however, has stood her ground.

ALICE TRIPP: This is not take-your-rifle-to-dinner day.

BURNETT: As the longtime lobbyist for the Texas State rifle Association, which wants the 2015 legislature to pass an open carry handgun bill. Tripp is frustrated by the armed marches.

TRIPP: It's not helpful. It's not good manners. It's not thoughtful. It's not conducive to facilitating the legislative process.

BURNETT: But publicity over Open Carry's tactics has helped a national group, called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. They formed after 20 children were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary. Their goal is universal background checks. Texas chapter spokesperson, Stephanie Lundy, points out that 40 percent of gun sales in America do not require screening, for instance, when a buyer deals with a private seller.

STEPHANIE LUNDY: It's one thing for us to tell folks that, in Texas, you don't have to go through a background check to acquire one of these weapons or to carry it in public. When they engage in this behavior, I can show people what it looks like.

BURNETT: In case you think this is a gun fringe group, consider that supporting Open Carry has now become a litmus test for statewide officeholders. In fact, the latest politician to come out in favor of allowing Texans to openly buckle a pistol on their hip is the Democratic nominee for governor, Wendy Davis. John Burnett. NPR News, Austin.

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