More than 300 people were invited on Facebook to walk down Cary Street on July Fourth with handguns, rifles and other so-called “long guns” proudly displayed.
Two showed up — and they were the organizers of the midday event in the family-oriented Carytown shopping district.
“I don’t know why,” said organizer Jason Spitzer, 29, when asked to explain the low turnout for what he described as an Independence Day demonstration to “spread Constitutional awareness” of Americans’ Second Amendment right to bear arms.
“But even if nobody came I’d still walk,” the Chesterfield County steel mill worker said, holding a large American flag in his hands, with a rifle slung over his shoulder and a holstered handgun on his hip. “It’s the Fourth of July and I love my country.”
But with turnout so low, the shoppers and diners along Cary Street weren’t quite sure what to make of the two-man march, which might very well have gone unnoticed were it not outnumbered by two television crews and a photographer in tow.
“I thought it was some Independence Day thing with the flag,” said a street folk singer who watched them pass by her open guitar case.
While concealed handguns require a permit issued by the state, Virginia law allows the open carrying of firearms in most public places by individuals legally eligible to possess firearms. Private businesses and property owners, however, may prohibit weapons on their premises.
In recent months, a Texas state law banning the open carry of handguns has stirred national debate, with the group “Open Carry Texas” demonstrating its objection by sending members into restaurant chains and stores such as Target with long guns slung over their shoulders.
The gun-control group “Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America” has sponsored petition drives to have the businesses take a stand against the practice. A number of stores have responded by discouraging open-carry displays, but stopped short of issuing outright bans on the practice.
Even the National Rifle Association, which supports the legal open and concealed carrying of firearms, initially questioned the wisdom of the Texas tactics in a posting on its website.
“Let’s not mince words, not only is it rare, it’s downright weird and certainly not a practical way to go normally about your business while being prepared to defend yourself,” the article said.
“To those who are not acquainted with the dubious practice of using public displays of firearms as a means to draw attention to oneself or one’s cause, it can be downright scary. It makes folks who might normally be perfectly open-minded about firearms feel uncomfortable and question the motives of pro-gun advocates.”
The NRA later backed away from the statement, saying it was a “mistake” that should not have happened.
In Carytown on Friday, most of the people interviewed said they had no problem with Spitzer and his cohort, Scott Royle, 26, also of Chesterfield, exercising their rights.
But most questioned the motivation — and the time and place of the demonstration.
“People need to be aware that they can carry a weapon, but at the same time you’ve got to be mindful of your environment and who else you are affecting,” said Carytown merchant Christopher Turner, 29. “It’s not just about you.”
“It’s a little weird in Carytown on the Fourth of July,” said Bryan Walthall, 30. “I think they are a couple of dudes looking for attention.”
During previous strolls up the street and a demonstration on the Cary Street bridge, city police had reminded Spitzer and Royle of the ordinances against using a megaphone and keeping their long guns unloaded and of the rules of engaging people on private property.
They steered clear of private property during their Friday stroll up Cary Street. Instead, they handed out literature to passers-by who were willing to stop.
Earlier, Spitzer said that he wanted to honor the men and women who had died for the country “since 1775,” as well as promote “responsible gun ownership” and “peaceful awareness of the right of self-protection.”
Asked if carrying a rifle was central to his safety midday in Carytown, he said: “If you can’t tell me when the next crime is going to happen ... then I’m going to protect myself the way I see fit.”
The biggest threat Spitzer appeared to face Friday was being ignored in person. Some accepted the leaflets, while others stayed clear as the duo strolled up the block without incident. The same could not be said for online.
“This should be the opening frame for a new TV show: [Sieg] Heil, American Style,” read a post on Spitzer’s Facebook page.
“What exactly are you protesting?” asked another commenter. “I mean, this is Virginia — our state bird has a gun.”
One online supporter offered a bit of advice: “Doesn’t it make more sense to stick to handguns?” he wrote.
“Don’t get me wrong, I love semi-auto rifles as much as anyone, but for open-carry demonstrations, handguns seem less likely to disturb those with more delicate sensibilities. This issue is really one of public relations, and it’s in our best interest to seem as non-threatening as possible.”
Even the Virginia Citizens Defense League, a politically active gun owners’ advocacy group, has kept its distance, saying only that it is neutral on long gun carrying as long as it is legal and safe.
In a recent newsletter, defense league President Philip Van Cleave said carrying a rifle presents certain logistical challenges that are not present with the legal carrying of holstered handguns, such as there not being “drop” safeties on many long guns.
“Standing up and sitting down will probably require you to actually handle the long gun [as in hold it in your hands]. Doing so could almost border on brandishing and is simply not as safe as not handling the long gun in public,” Van Cleave writes.
Richmond Police officer Patrick Warner, the community assistance officer for Carytown, had a brief chat with Spitzer and Royle near the Carytown shopping center, before the pair proceeded east down the street.
“I think this is their 15 minutes of fame,” he said, speaking less to the Second Amendment than to the First.