CLEVELAND — The open-carry activists who brought handguns to a Monday afternoon rally for presumptive Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump had more than firearms in common.
All of the armed activists who talked to Yahoo News at the event, which was held just outside the security perimeter for the Republican National Convention, cited similar reasons for having pistols on display. They expressed fear about the state of the country, eroding personal freedoms and concerns about violence from the jihadist group the Islamic State and the Black Lives Matter movement.
The debate over open carrying of firearms has gained prominence in recent years, in the aftermath of a series of high-profile mass shootings. And for the activists at the Trump rally, carrying weapons was both protection and a political statement.
Jim Peterson was wearing a tight T-shirt with an American flag and a visible bulge from the body armor he was wearing underneath. The holster on his hip held a .357 magnum revolver.
“It’s strong enough. It’ll do the job,” Peterson said as showed off the gun.
Peterson explained that he was carrying the firearm to express support for the Second Amendment and to guard against potential dangers at the convention.
“Open carrying is actually my way of showing the Constitution, the rights to carry,” Peterson said, later adding, “Also, I look at it this way: If there’s a conflict, if something rears up, then I’m there to support the civilians and the police. So, need be, hopefully not, but we’re all here for the same reason. It’s a peaceful rally, and we’re hoping there’s no type of tension building up.”
The RNC launched amid predictions of massive protests and under the cloud of a recent spate of violence that has shocked the world. In the weeks leading up to the convention, multiple high-profile terrorist attacks were perpetrated by militants of the so-called Islamic State, and several police officers were killed following controversial shootings of African-Americans by police. In light of this violence, the open-carry activists said they were prepared to face attacks from either ISIS or Black Lives Matter activists at the convention.
Peterson, who said he was an Air Force veteran and former Pennsylvania policeman, claimed that ISIS members are biding their time in “secret cells” inside the United States. He also suggested that President Obama and presumptive Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton might be complicit in these plots.
“Let me tell you something, ISIS got a lot of things planned, and I think it’s bought and paid for by Obama and Hillary’s going along with Obama,” Peterson explained. “They’re bought and paid for.”
Joel Ameigh, a burly, bearded man from Hershey, Pa., who had a handgun strapped to his side, cited Black Lives Matter activists as the most likely source of potential “trouble” at the RNC.
“Look at what Black Lives Matter has morphed into from its original stance back in 2010 or whenever they started,” he said. “Some of them, not all of them, but some of them, have seemed it to be necessary to kill the police and ‘Kill whitey.’ And that’s, you know, that’s crazy.”
The theme of the first day of the convention was “Make America Safe Again,” a play on Trump’s campaign slogan. Ameigh pointed to Islamic terrorism when asked if he thought the country is safe today.
“Is any country safe right now? All our intervention in the Middle East has done nothing but create Islamic jihadist caliphates,” Ameigh said. “We bomb them. We kill kids’ parents. We kill parents’ kids. They get pissed off. What do you expect is going to happen? Our direct involvement in the Middle East has made the world what it is today.”
Nevertheless, Ameigh said he didn’t expect any violent incidents to spoil the convention. He also predicted that the pro-Trump rally might be one of the most secure spots at the RNC, thanks to the contingent of open-carry activists in attendance.
“This is one of the safest places you could be, because there’s hundreds of people — I don’t know, at least 50 people — here that are carrying,” Ameigh said. “So, if somebody wants to come here and stir up trouble, it’s not a good place.”
Ameigh was accompanied at the Trump rally by a pair of other men who were carrying pistols. They declined to speak with Yahoo News, but another man named Mike jumped into the conversation to express appreciation for the armed trio.
“I’m so happy these guys are carrying right now. I wish I was carrying. I didn’t want to, because I have my wife with me,” he said. “I’m from Chicago. I have a concealed-carry license that is good for Ohio and I would have carried, but my wife told me I couldn’t carry, so I didn’t.”
“She said basically she didn’t want to invite trouble,” Mike explained. “We have a child.”
Mike also described “Islamic extremists” as the “No. 1” threat to public safety, but he also had other concerns.
“Now we’ve got these new guys in town, which are also kind of like anti-establishment types,” he said. “I don’t know, it’s scary right now, but you know, we need to have ourselves protected for sure.”
The unique atmosphere at the RNC also brought another challenge for the open-carry activists: swarms of media. Crowds of reporters at the Trump rally sought interviews with anyone they could find displaying a gun. Tyson Gross, a thin man with a camouflage Washington Nationals hat and a 9mm on his waist, said Yahoo News was the fourth or fifth media outlet with whom he had spoken at the event.
“I had to get some water, just because I’m talking too much,” said Gross.
Though the open-carry activists said they considered their guns were a safety measure, some members of law enforcement have argued they are courting danger by bringing weapons to the contentious convention. After three officers were killed Sunday in Baton Rouge, La., the head of Cleveland’s largest police union called for the suspension of open-carry laws in his city.
Many of the open-carry activists who talked to Yahoo News said they supported law enforcement, but none of them bought the union chief’s argument that their actions posed a threat. Richard Morrell, a Texan who was attending with his father, said the union’s push for stricter gun laws made it “more important” for activists to exercise the right to openly carry firearms. Both Morrell men were carrying handguns, though the father had opted to conceal his weapon.
“This is what America’s all about: freedom of speech, the right to carry, the right to privacy,” the younger Morrell said. “Everyone just needs to stay cool, stay calm and enjoy the freedoms that we have. If you don’t use your freedoms to defend your freedoms, you will lose your freedoms.”
Apart from Ameigh, who said he was torn between Trump and Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson, all of the open-carry activists who talked to Yahoo News at the rally said they were backing the presumptive Republican nominee. One man, who declined to give his last name and said he goes by “Pocket,” said he was in nearly complete agreement with Trump’s platform.
“I’m pulling the lever for Donald Trump 1,000 times. Hillary belongs in prison and then swinging from the gallows, OK?” Pocket said. “I don’t agree with anything anybody says 100 percent of the time. I agree with what Trump is saying almost 100 percent. I think he needs to tone the rhetoric down a little bit of his delivery speech. That’s all.”
Pocket did not have a firearm on display, but he admitted he “might” have a concealed weapon on hand. He was standing with a man named David, who also declined to give a last name and had a gun on his hip. Both men described themselves as bikers, and David was sporting a T-shirt from the group “Bikers for Trump,” which had a large presence at the rally. David had a theory about why bikers have enthusiasm for both guns and motorcycles.
“It’s the freedom,” David said.