Gun-rights activists say Fort Worth incident is overblown

05/06/2014 6:34 PM

05/06/2014 10:32 PM

Local gun-rights activists say too much fuss is being made over an incident last week in which some of its demonstrators, carrying shotguns and rifles, walked into a Fort Worth fast-food restaurant to buy soft drinks but were mistaken for robbers.

Last week, employees at the Jack in the Box at Sycamore School Road and the South Freeway told Fort Worth police officers that “they feared for their lives” and locked themselves in a freezer for protection after seeing men they thought were armed with assault rifles enter the restaurant, according to a police report.

Kory Watkins, a spokesman for Open Carry Tarrant County, said Tuesday that the men were carrying their firearms in a “nonaggressive fashion” and that they were at the restaurant only to buy drinks while waiting for a nearby gun-rights demonstration to begin. Within moments, police officers arrived to ask the men why they were there.

“This was blown out of proportion. There was no robbery. The caller must have overexaggerated the situation,” Watkins said.

Fort Worth police said Tuesday that they were not aware of the nearby open-carry demonstration when they responded to a 911 call about four men carrying assault rifles. A patrol officer advised members that it “would be advantageous if they carried large signage or flags declaring their purpose” and notified the Police Department before demonstrations, according to the report.

“We respect the rights of all citizens to peacefully protest and the right to bear arms. However, we cannot stress enough how a simple phone call to police prior to this demonstration and the use of easily visible signage could have avoided unnecessarily alarming the public,” Fort Worth police officials said in a statement.

Early warning

Open Carry members typically carry shotguns, rifles or pre-1899 black-powder or replica pistols during their demonstrations, which have been held in cities across Tarrant County since last year.

Part of the group’s mission, besides lobbying legislators for less-restrictive gun laws, is to educate residents about their open-carry rights and to help the public become more comfortable around those who exercise them.

“Texas is not used to open carry. People who have been here all their life are not used to the open carry of pistols other than police officers,” said Watkins, a candidate for the Mansfield school board in Saturday’s election. “They are conditioned to think it is not normal when actually our Founding Fathers intended for it to be normal.”

Watkins said the group typically notifies police the first few times it holds demonstrations, then discontinues notifications if demonstrators encounter no problems. That had been the case for Fort Worth before the May 1 robbery report, Watkins said.

“We are trying to make it regular and normal. How we do that is to do what we do normally. We don’t call people and say, ‘We are coming in with guns.’ It doesn’t work like that.”

Watkins said the group is reviewing video footage taken by its own members, is interviewing restaurant employees and has requested copies of the 911 call and police report as part of its investigation into whether someone with an anti-gun agenda orchestrated the incident.

“It could have been somebody who doesn’t like what we are doing,” said Watkins, who said people have recently made 911 calls about demonstrators in Arlington, falsely alleging that members were acting aggressively and pointing guns at passing motorists. “It is frustrating. I also understand we can use the ammo right back at the people who were lying and blowing this story out of proportion.”

A post on the Open Carry Texas Facebook page Tuesday disputed the police report.

“Defamation of an organization in this fashion is serious business and we will not allow it to happen unchallenged. Fort Worth Police Department needs to correct their false statements immediately that painted open carry advocates unfairly in the media,” the post read.

Disavowed media report

Watkins also said Tuesday that some local media reports that Open Carry Texas had disavowed the Tarrant County group over the Fort Worth restaurant incident are inaccurate.

The Tarrant County group, formed last year, is not directly affiliated with the state group, although it does share a common mission, Watkins said.

At their demonstrations, Open Carry Tarrant County members plan to continue flying the Open Carry Texas flag and handing out educational materials bought from the state group, he said.

“In order to have a split, you have to be together. We never were,” Watkins said.

Attempts to reach Open Carry Texas were unsuccessful.

Last month, some Open Carry Tarrant County members reportedly ran into problems at a south Arlington fast-food restaurant, police said.

On April 17, Arlington officers were called to the Wendy’s near Interstate 20 and Matlock Road after management reported that a few of the gun-rights activists, who had a flag and long-barreled guns in the parking lot, were frightening customers.

“There were customers in the store who were scared to leave,” Sgt. Jeff Houston, an Arlington police spokesman, said Tuesday. “They reported other customers were turning around and leaving before coming in.”

Wendy’s management, who asked the group to leave, told Arlington police that the activists had not sought permission to demonstrate there, Houston said.

Demonstrators are urged to wear their guns safely and not intentionally intimidate the public, Watkins said.

“We do make strong recommendations to have your rifle or shotgun on your backs and your muzzle pointed up or down,” Watkins said. “If your muzzle is not pointed up or down, you are not walking with us.”

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