Imagine sitting down to dinner at a restaurant with your family when in walks a handful of men armed with assault rifles. Are you frightened, maybe angry? Or do they make you feel safe?
That's the question at the center of a bitter and increasingly public battle surrounding a group of gun-carrying activists in Texas, who brazenly flex their legal right to bear arms by carrying around assault rifles in public. The group calls themselves "Open Carry Texas." Their enthusiasm for packing heat in public has led national chains like Chipotle, Chili's and Jack in the Box to ask customers to leave their firearms at home.
What the group is doing is perfectly legal in Texas, but they have come to represent the line in the sand between those in America who fear the violent use of guns and those who fear losing their guns.
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Master Sgt. CJ Grisham, a 20-year Army veteran and father of three, is the man behind Open Carry Texas.
Nearly every week, Grisham, his wife and often his young children hit the road to attend open carry marches across Texas. Grisham stressed the fact he always calls ahead to alert police about their marches, and never enters a restaurant or store while armed without getting permission.
At one march in San Antonio, nearly two dozen well-armed supporters, men and women from retirees to children, showed up to pass out flyers on one of the city's busiest intersections. Most of the passing motorists were supportive, honking their horns and giving the group thumbs up, but others flipped them off and told them they were crazy.
Grisham says he began the Open Carry movement after one incident that he says traumatized him. Grisham and his 16-year old son had decided to go on a hike in rural Texas. Grisham brought along a rifle to protect from wild animals, which is legal under Texas law. During his hike, he was stopped by a police officer, who attempted to disarm Grisham and arrested him. Grisham claims that it was a false arrest. The incident was caught on police dashcam. Grisham was taken to jail, and later convicted of interfering with the duties of a police officer, a charge he is appealing in court.
Grisham, who is months from retiring from the Army, said he still battles with PTSD from his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and the arrest triggered one of the worst PTSD episodes he had ever endured.
He posted the arrest video online, and it made him something of a folk hero on pro-gun and gun rights websites. Grisham says the support he received is what lit the spark to turn him from gun advocate, to gun activist. Open Carry Texas' mission is to raise awareness of existing gun rights and to expand those rights. Surprisingly, Texas law says it is legal to openly carry so-called "long guns" like assault rifles, but the open carry of handguns is prohibited. Grisham says Open Carry Texas' provocative tactics are aimed at legalizing the open carry of handguns in the state. He wears a plastic pistol everywhere he goes as a symbol of his cause.
As for his controversial marches, Grisham says they help show people that guns are not always something to be feared. When pressed, he acknowledged that he knows he may be scaring some people, but that these people have what he calls "an irrational fear of guns."
For many people, that fear is not at all irrational. The latest FBI data shows that firearms are responsible for 69 percent of homicides in the United States. But in America, the gun debate goes further than statistics. The conversation about gun rights in this country cannot escape the dark shadow of the horrific mass murders that happened in places like Aurora and Sandy Hook.
Grisham said he still battles PTSD, including the memories of the seven people he says he killed in combat.
"I can literally picture every single person I had to shoot at, and I can picture exactly how that person fell, how that person limped off, or tried to get away," he said.
But when asked about the mental health aspect of the gun control argument, Grisham said the issue posed a "very dynamic and broad question."
"We have to be careful not to paint with a broad brush," he said. "The way to deal with a mentally disturbed person with a gun is a sane person with a gun."
Of course, gun control advocates strongly disagree, and Open Carry Texas is at the center of a massive petition movement led by a group called Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America.
"The thing that people have to remember about the open carry of long guns in Texas specifically is that there's no background check required, there's no training required, and there's no licensing required. So anyone can be walking around with one of these long guns, and they carry them around loaded," said Carolyn, an ambassador for the Moms Demand Action group.
Carolyn, who asked that her last name not be used, is part of the movement pressuring chains like Target and Home Depot to ban open carry in their stores.
"The companies need to do the right thing and they need to provide a safe environment for their consumers," she said.
As for Grisham, he says the open carry movement is growing in support each day, and spreading to other states.
"Well I don't think this struggle ever ends. As long as there are people who don't think law-abiding citizens should have guns," he said. "This is going to be a struggle that's going to go on forever."
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