With AR-15s, Mossberg 20-gauge shotguns and modified AK-47s slung over their shoulders, gun-rights activists received thumbs up, handshakes and honks of approval Thursday night as they distributed information to motorists who rolled down their windows at a busy Mansfield intersection.
The demonstrators were from the Tarrant County chapter of Open Carry Texas, whose mission includes lobbying legislators to enact less-restrictive gun laws, educating residents about their right to openly carry shotguns and rifles safely, and helping the public feel comfortable around those who do.
“We are trying to make it as normal as possible for people to see a gun like a fashion accessory,” said Kory Watkins, an Open Carry Tarrant County representative. “That is the way it should be. This is America.”
But the group recently came under fire in Arlington, not so much for carrying their shotguns and rifles in the open — as it has done during organized demonstrations around businesses and public places since last year — but for violating a city ordinance that members say unfairly prohibits them from distributing political literature to passing motorists.
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Last week, Arlington police cited Open Carry members Daniel Wood and Mason Yancy for handing out pamphlets and pocket-size Constitutions at Collins Street and Road to Six Flags near the Lincoln Square shopping center.
The ordinance, designed to protect both pedestrians and motorists, prohibits anyone from standing or walking on street corners, sidewalks and medians to hand out literature or other items to people inside vehicles that are not legally parked.
Watkins said the ordinance violates the group’s freedom of speech. At least 30 members are expected to voice their concerns to the City Council on Tuesday night.
“This is unconstitutional, and the law needs to be changed,” Watkins said. “We are going to challenge it by getting more tickets or arrested. I don’t think they want to make headlines for people getting arrested for handing out copies of the Constitution.”
The city attorney’s office and Police Department are reviewing the ordinance, said Lt. Christopher Cook, a police spokesman. He said they aren’t concerned with the literature’s content.
“They have been demonstrating and marching in Arlington for months. The only new take is now they are entering a public roadway with traffic. That can create an unsafe condition,” Cook said. “It has nothing to do with what they are handing out.”
Open Carry Tarrant County was formed about eight months ago and has about 900 members, Watkins said. During organized walks in various Tarrant County cities, members typically carry or wear long-barreled guns or pre-1899 black powder revolvers or replicas of those revolvers, he said. The group is pushing for the state to allow residents to openly carry pistols.
The Arlington Police Department has shown up with as many as a dozen officers to monitor the demonstrations and has detained members in the past, Watkins said. It’s the only department the group has had problems with, he said.
Officers were initially dispatched to investigate an Open Carry gathering at Road to Six Flags and Collins Street on March 27 after the city received four 911 calls, reviewed by the Star-Telegram, including one from a man who said, “I don’t feel safe when someone is walking around with a shotgun.”
Officers asked group members to stop walking into the roadway to distribute literature, but at least two members continued to, Cook said.
Officers had the discretion to issue tickets at the scene, but Cook said they chose to leave the heated situation. He added that group members insulted the officers.
Wood picked up his citation in person at the police station, and the other was mailed to Yancy, police said.
“We don’t want to engage in dialogue on the streets with them. We would rather have this dialogue in the courtroom,” Cook said.
Wood and Yancy each received a Class C misdemeanor citation, which has a fine up to $500.
Wood videotaped himself continuing to hand out literature after Yancy was detained.
“I said I would happily take the citation and fight it in court and sue the city of Arlington if need be,” said Wood, who originally asked the council to repeal the ordinance at its March 18 meeting. “But I don’t want to do that. It would just cost everyone in the city of Arlington money.”
Fill the Boot
Open Carry Tarrant County members also raised fairness concerns, because Arlington firefighters were allowed to solicit donations from motorists as part of their Fill the Boot campaign that same day.
“Everyone should have equal rights. We should have the right to hand our literature to people who are wanting it,” said Watkins, who is running for Place 6 on the Mansfield school board against incumbent Danny Baas. “If this is about safety, how come those guys are doing it and we can’t?”
A state statute allows the city to grant permission for its employees to stand in the roadway to collect charitable contributions under certain circumstances, City Attorney Jay Doegey said.
Arlington firefighters collected more than $65,000 for the Muscular Dystrophy Association over three days.
Fort Worth attorney Art Brender, who is not involved with the dispute, said the ordinance appears reasonable from a public safety perspective, though he questions why it is not being applied equally to all groups.
“While the state statute may allow it, I don’t see a whole lot of difference safetywise from someone soliciting money and someone giving you a handbill,” Brender said. “If some groups are being allowed to do this despite public safety concerns while others are not, you might well have an infringement of the freedom of speech.”
Brender added, however, that he believes “the ordinance would pass muster” with the court since the group has other ways to distribute their information.
“Walking around cars that are coming up and down the street like that would appear to be one of those cases where the courts would look at the reasonableness of it. It doesn’t look unreasonable the way it is written,” Brender said. “They don’t have to go out to the street to pass out their literature. There are other options.”
A sense of security
Arlington police have shown up at previous Open Carry Tarrant County gatherings, Cook said, to provide security for the demonstrators and to calm community concerns.
“Typically when a citizen sees a group of armed individuals walking the street but there is a police car in close vicinity, that cuts down on some of the community fear and cuts down on 911 calls,” Cook said. “We’ve done that as a courtesy for their safety and to let the public know we are aware of their presence.”
The Police Department, Cook said, is neutral on the open-carry movement.
“We would be remiss in our public safety duties if we failed to respond. Even in light of the recent tragedies across America, we can’t get desensitized when citizens call us to report that someone is walking down the street with a gun — whether that is one person or a group of 100 of them,” Cook said.
“We’re going to have to go and lay eyes on that situation and determine if the conduct is lawful or unlawful.”
Cook said that the open-carry group had been warned about the ordinance earlier in the month but that March 27 was the first time any members received citations.
Yancy said the open-carry walkers expected to be ticketed.
“I’m trying to show people that if you don’t use your rights, you will lose them,” he said.