PHOENIX - About a dozen people carrying guns, including one with a military-style rifle, milled among protesters outside the convention center where President Barack Obama was giving a speech Monday - the latest incident in which protesters have openly displayed firearms near the president.
Gun-rights advocates say they're exercising their constitutional right to bear arms and protest, while those who argue for more gun control say it could be a disaster waiting to happen.
Phoenix police said the gun-toters at Monday's event, including the man carrying an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle slung over his shoulder, didn't need permits. No crimes were committed, and no one was arrested.
The man with the rifle declined to be identified but told The Arizona Republic that he was carrying the assault weapon because he could. ``In Arizona, I still have some freedoms,'' he said.
Phoenix police Detective J. Oliver, who monitored the man at the downtown protest, said police also wanted to make sure no one decided to harm him.
``Just by his presence and people seeing the rifle and people knowing the president was in town, it sparked a lot of emotions,'' Oliver said. ``We were keeping peace on both ends.''
``It's a political statement,'' he told The Boston Globe. ``If you don't use your rights, then you lose your rights.''
Police asked the man to move away from school property, but he was not arrested.
Fred Solop, a Northern Arizona University political scientist, said the incidents in New Hampshire and Arizona could signal the beginning of a disturbing trend.
``When you start to bring guns to political rallies, it does layer on another level of concern and significance,'' Solop said. ``It actually becomes quite scary for many people. It creates a chilling effect in the ability of our society to carry on honest communication.''
He said he's never heard of someone bringing an assault weapon near a presidential event. ``The larger the gun, the more menacing the situation,''
Arizona is an ``open-carry'' state, which means anyone legally allowed to have a firearm can carry it in public as long as it's visible. Only someone carrying a concealed weapon is required to have a permit.
Paul Helmke, president of the Washington, D.C.-based Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said people should not be allowed to bring guns to events where Obama is.
``To me, this is craziness,'' he said. ``When you bring a loaded gun, particularly a loaded assault rifle, to any political event, but particularly to one where the president is appearing, you're just making the situation dangerous for everyone.''
He said people who bring guns to presidential events are distracting the Secret Service and law enforcement from protecting the president. ``The more guns we see at more events like this, there's more potential for something tragic happening,'' he said.
I'm a liberal, but I own a couple of guns. But the idea of ever bringing a gun to a public event is beyond my comprehension. And the police were making sure that "no one decided to harm him"? The dude had an AR-15, and you're worried about his safety? This is not a good sign.
(Added) Steven D at Booman Tribune has it right:
Which brings me to my quote of the day by the Brady Campaign's President Paul Helmke:Bringing loaded firearms to any Presidential event endangers all in attendance. Even though our weak national and state gun laws may allow this dangerous behavior, we should use a little common sense. Individuals carrying loaded weapons at these events require constant attention from police and Secret Service officers, thus stretching their protective efforts even thinner. The possibility that these weapons might be grabbed or stolen or accidently mishandled increases the risks of serious injury or death to all in attendance.
The National Rifle Association and other 'gun rights' groups need to send a message about 'gun responsibilities' to their members and all gun owners. Loaded weapons at political forums endanger all involved, distract law enforcement, and end up stifling debate. Presidential protesters need to leave their firearms at home -- no exceptions."
I couldn't agree more. There is no need for to bring weapons to a political event unless your goal is to intimidate those with whom you disagree into silence, or unless you intend to use those weapons to assassinate a political figure. Neither of those is a legitimate exercise of one's right to bear arms.