Chris Miller slung his AR-15 rifle over his shoulder Thursday night and headed to the Fort Worth Convention Center.
There the 24-year-old stood, talking to passers-by, telling them that he wants to see Texans openly and freely carry their handguns.
“Anytime you see a firearm, it doesn’t mean that’s a criminal or there’s a crime happening,” said Miller, a member of Open Carry Tarrant County. “We wanted to come out and educate the public and show support for the cause.”
He and about a dozen other supporters of the movement openly carried the only guns they legally could — long guns such as his AR-15 and black powder pistols, which aren’t regulated by state law — and marched around the convention center on the first day of the Texas Republican Party’s state convention.
They carried flags that read “Come and Take It” and “Don’t Tread on Me,” drawing honks from some supporters and cheers from at least one passer-by, who yelled, “Fight the Good Fight!”
They hope to draw attention and support from delegates inside the building who may decide whether to add a plank to the party platform on licensed carry, which would let Texans openly and legally carry handguns if they earn a license, or constitutional carry, which would let Texans do the same with no license.
“We are demonstrating our rights,” said Kory Watkins, coordinator for Open Carry Tarrant County and a delegate to the convention. “We want to influence the delegates … and strengthen the gun rights we have.
“We want to make sure this is our No. 1 priority.”
Guns were already a big topic at the convention center this week.
Shortly before the convention began, signs were posted on the doors warning the public that the unlicensed possession of a weapon is a felony. That’s because the facility holds a Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission license.
That didn’t deter open-carry enthusiasts, who have worn black powder pistols inside the building this week.
Officials have said concealed-handgun license holders and peace officers may carry their concealed handguns inside. Long guns were restricted to outside.
Tim Shimko of Fort Worth was taking a leisurely walk downtown when he saw a group of people carrying long guns and black powder pistols gathering near the convention center.
“It’s interesting,” he said. “I used to live in Montana, where they do that there.
“Times change,” Shimko said. “Sometimes it’s a scary world.”
Russell Beutlich, a Republican delegate from Houston, said he supports the marchers — and their desire to openly carry their handguns in Texas.
“I’m against gun control,” the 66-year-old said. “I believe a freely armed citizenry is a check against tyranny.”
David Lampenfield, another delegate from Houston, said he would like to see open carry be legal in Texas. But he’s not sure that having a bunch of people carry long guns in public is the right way to achieve that goal.
“They should only do it if they need to,” he said.
State Republican Party Chairman Steve Munisteri said before the convention that if it were up to him, open carry would be more than welcome during the gathering.
“We expect to have people there carrying weapons,” he said. “It’s a Republican crowd and that’s a crowd that’s used to people packing.”
During the Thursday evening march, the gun-rights demonstrators ran into a larger group of about 25 flag- and sign-waving people protesting for gay-marriage rights in Texas. The larger group was there to protest a rally for traditional marriage inside the Omni Hotel across the street.
“Jesus had two dads and he turned out OK,” read one of the pro-gay-marriage signs.
Local open-carry groups have drawn national attention.
Recently, Open Carry Tarrant County sued Arlington, where officials made it harder for pedestrians to hand out literature to motorists at busy intersections.
In April, City Council members banned weapons or simulated weapons from being brought into City Hall or other city buildings where public meetings are being held.
Officials with the alcohol commission have reminded Texans that long guns aren’t allowed in businesses that sell alcoholic drinks. The business could lose its permit to sell drinks, and any person in violation could face criminal-trespassing charges.
As a result of the national attention, some leaders in the open-carry movement sent out a letter calling on supporters to curb efforts to carry long guns into Texas businesses.
Then an opinion piece posted on the National Rifle Association website called some open-carry rallies “downright weird and certainly not a practical way to go normally about your business while being prepared to defend yourself.”
Later, an NRA executive said the statement chastising open-carry enthusiasts in Texas was a “mistake” and was the personal opinion of one staff member.
“Our job is not to criticize the lawful behavior of fellow gun owners,” said Chris Cox, who is in charge of the NRA Institute for Legislative Action.
Richard Hodo, 34, of Fort Worth joined the march to support gun rights Thursday night.
“I’m here to exercise my Second Amendment right,” he said. “I want to educate people about it and fight to get open carry.”
James Franklin was among those showing support for the open-carry movement.
“Our right to keep and bear arms is a natural right,” said Franklin, the West Texas regional director for Come and Take It Texas and a Republican delegate from Midland.
“It can’t be taken away by the government.”
Staff writer John Gravois contributed to this report.