Unbowed, the Open Carry evangelists continue to talk about their actions in terms normally reserved for civil rights heroes desegregating a lunch counter. These guys understand, to the very core of their being, that allowing everyone to carry heat will only make the dining experience at Chipotle safer, not more dangerous, and the fact that your average citizen is freaked out by the sight of a dude with an AR-15 ordering an adobo-marinated chicken burrito bowl is at once depressing evidence of a deep-rooted prejudice and a reminder of one's moral duty to educate the easily spooked, blithely unarmed masses.
Open Carry Texas was one of the organizers of the Gathering of the American Patriot (along with groups like DontComply.com and Come and Take It America), and the night before the event, I meet up with the group's founder, C.J. Grisham, at a Candlewood Suites Hotel in nearby Wichita Falls. A 40-year-old Army master sergeant stationed at Fort Hood, Grisham has spent his entire life around guns. His father, also in the military, collects weapons dating back to the Revolutionary War. Grisham initially enlisted in the Army as a Spanish linguist, working in counter-narcotics. Eventually he would serve in Afghanistan and Iraq, where he saw the fall of Baghdad and heavy fighting in Fallujah.
Squat and muscular, Grisham is wearing an Open Carry Texas baseball cap with a gold fishing hook affixed to the brim. Post-traumatic-stress-disorder triggers that yank sufferers back to painful moments are called hooks. "And obviously," Grisham says, "because of my heavy combat, I've got a lot of them. But I've overcome some, and my therapist gave me this as a reminder, so that's why I wear that. I know some people might think it's because I'm a redneck, but I don't fish." Grisham also has a long-barreled black-powder pistol holstered to his hip. At one point, he takes out the gun to show me. I nervously glance at the woman working the front desk to see if she's making a panicked call to 911, but she's just staring blankly at her computer.
Last March, Grisham was taking a 10-mile Boy Scout hike with his 15-year-old son when the pair were stopped by a police officer. Grisham was carrying his AR-15, and a concerned citizen, having spotted them walking along a country road, called the authorities. Grisham was arrested and found guilty of interfering with the duties of a police officer, and received a $2,000 fine. In the world of Second Amendment purists, though, Grisham's arrest video went viral, and he suddenly found himself the face of a movement. Not long after, he started Open Carry Texas.
"If you don't exercise a right, you tend to lose it, and this was a perfect example," Grisham tells me. "Nobody carries their rifles around anymore. When I was younger, it wasn't uncommon for people to go to school and still have their shotguns and deer rifles in the back windows of their pickup trucks. When my dad was growing up, if you were going to go hunting after school, you could literally put your rifle in your locker. It wasn't a big deal. Then we started creating these gun-free zones and regulating weapons, stigmatizing them. I call it gun shaming. Like, 'Oh, my gosh, you have a gun? You're a monster!'"
Grisham insists his members always ask for permission from the manager before entering a restaurant, and that the group's actions are "not controversial" in Texas. Then he begins to tell me about his time in Iraq, where, during major combat operations, he saw daily firefights three months straight. The duties of his job as an intel officer included searching dead enemy soldiers for valuable information; sometimes it would take days before combat subsided enough to approach the bodies, which had been baking in 100-degree Iraqi heat. On his blog, Grisham has written frankly about his PTSD. Loud noises – an unexpected boom at a fireworks show, say – cause him to jump, and certain smells that remind him of rotting corpses can also serve as hooks. "Early on, there was a lot of survivor's guilt," he says, his arms crossed in such a tight way that he's almost hugging his own massive shoulders. The table wobbles as he leans forward and then back. "I lost some good friends. I wrote about my road to recovery, my successes and failures, even a suicide attempt." His 12-year-old daughter, sitting across the table, plays distractedly with the sausage McMuffin she's been snacking on.
As much as one empathizes with Grisham, his arrest video, captured by the arresting officer's dashboard camera, paints a more complicated and disturbing picture. Grisham is wearing black sunglasses and a ranger's hat; a head scarf tucked into the sides of the hat covers his face like a balaclava whenever the wind blows. He looks terrifying. The police officer, a portly man with a mustache and a thick Texas accent, approaches cautiously, asking, "Some reason why you have this?"
"'Cause I can," Grisham replies, sounding casual, but also, if you don't know the guy, possibly deranged.
"Well, OK," the officer says. He begins to pull the gun away from Grisham. At this point, Grisham flips out, yelling, "Hey, don't disarm me, man!" and attempting to grab the gun back. In a flash, the officer has drawn his own pistol and started screaming at Grisham, slamming him against the hood of the police car. Now they're both framed by the camera. The officer's pistol is pressed to Grisham's back. "You're trying to disarm me illegally!" Grisham protests. "Am I threatening you?"
He's handcuffed, and a sergeant arrives. "Sir, is it against the law to carry an open firearm like that?" Grisham asks. "Let me answer the question: No, it's not. I've done nothing illegal, and yet this guy decides he wants to throw me against the car."
"He has a right to disarm you," the sergeant says calmly.
Here, Grisham goes berserk and begins shouting in disagreement. When the first officer asks for his identification, Grisham screams, "Shut up! I'm talking to your freaking sergeant right now. It's in my pocket. . . . I can walk around with a rifle!"
The video continues for about 10 more minutes. It's difficult to watch. At one point, Grisham insists, "If you had said, 'Sir, will you drop the gun?' I would have done just that. . . . I'm an Iraq and Afghanistan veteran."
"What would you do if you came up to somebody armed like that in Iraq?" the sergeant asks.
Grisham, agitated again, cries, "This isn't Iraq, dude! We're in Temple, Texas!"
As he continues to argue, the arresting officer says, "I'm not gonna let you put your hands on [your gun] and shoot me."
Here, Grisham suddenly turns calm, sounding almost pained. The honest confusion in his voice is simultaneously heartbreaking and terrifying.
"Who said," Grisham asks, "I was gonna shoot you?"
Here's the wild thing: I can watch Grisham's arrest video and feel not only relief, but also something akin to a swell of patriotic pride, at the sight of this lumpy, out-of-shape lawman doing his duty – risking his life, for all he knew – to serve and protect the citizens of Bell County, Texas. And yet the attendants of the Gathering of the American Patriot, to a person, I'm willing to bet, could watch the same video and witness an outrageous violation of personal liberty by a police state gone rogue.
I should note, here, that I also grew up around guns. Most of my male relatives in Detroit hunted; my father occasionally used a famous brand of shotgun called the Benelli (no relation), which he purchased at a gun shop called (seriously) Michi-Gun. I never personally enjoyed target shooting or hunting, but being around people who love guns doesn't make me sweat or feel like I'm among an alien species.
It's also interesting to report that nearly everyone I met at the rally turned out to be far quirkier, politically, than any caricatured preconceptions might lead you to guess. While journalistic comparisons between the rise of the Tea Party and the rise of Occupy Wall Street – as two ends of the spectrum responding to economic collapse and elite betrayal – feel like clichéd false equivalency by this point, there's an unruly, anarchistic feel to this crowd that reminds me of the time I spent in Zuccotti Park. There are serious political differences, to be sure, but their pitchforks are aimed at many of the same villains, and at times the most salient aspect of the divide feels cultural.
Take, for instance, Austin real-estate broker Andrew Clements, who stands out from the crowd in his white dress shirt, pink tie, black Serengeti sunglasses and white visor. He's also holding a sign reading I CHOOSE TO FIGHT BACK! and carrying a short-barreled 9mm AR-15. "Make sure you put the short part in," he implores. "The short barrel is what makes it cool!" Clements describes himself as a fiscal conservative and a Libertarian on social issues. A protracted battle with the ATF over getting a gun dealer's license brought him to the rally. "They spent tens of thousands of dollars to fight me," Clements claims. "And I'm a normal guy in the suburbs like you!" Despite the sign (and the gun), Clements is more friendly than angry. "I think the country is falling apart," he says. "You're wasting a vote if you vote for Democrats or Republicans. They're both the same party. Look at the NSA spying. My philosophy is about respecting everyone else's thing: all races, sexual preferences, religions. That's what makes us special as Americans. What's the difference if I have a gun, or if that guy is gay?"
"We want homosexual people to protect their marijuana plants with firearms!" chimes in Matthew Short, an organizer of the event. He's wearing a black T-shirt that reads PROUD MEMBER OF THE TERRORIST WATCH LIST and has a white-on-black peace sign tattooed on his inner forearm, though he's also carrying a rifle. Short's day job, working as an interior designer, takes him into some of the wealthiest suburbs in the country, around Dallas and Fort Worth. "It's a modern-day oligarchy right now," he says. "We're watching banks and politicians who've been in charge since JFK giving away everything we have." Short is also given to more conspiratorial lines of thought, advising me to check out some YouTube videos he's posted about Syria, Benghazi and the massive fertilizer-plant explosion that took place last year in rural Texas, where he snuck onto the blast scene with some firefighters. He thinks Monsanto might have had something to do with it.
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