Open Carry Pennsylvania founder, Justin Dillon, mingles with other gun rights advocates in the lobby of the Pittsburgh City County building before a city council public hearing over proposed gun legislation.
Photo by Pete Marovich of American Reportage

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Pittsburgh’s ‘commonsense’ gun legislation might merely be theater — and a recruiting opportunity for gun rights activists

The legislation likely can’t pass a court challenge. Is it really a push for reform? Or an inadvertent rallying call for expanded Second Amendment rights?

By Joseph L. Flatley // Photo by Pete Marovich // American Reportage for postindustrial

AUDIO: Listen to this article read by Carmen Gentile

The rally began on Facebook.

In the wake of the Tree of Life massacre, Pittsburgh City Council proposed “commonsense” gun legislation to curtail the sale and possession of assault weapons and bump stocks, and to give courts the power to temporarily take guns away from potentially dangerous individuals. Firearm activists responded aggressively. Backed by an NRA-affiliated Chester County law firm, two civil rights advocacy groups* — the Allegheny County Sportsmen’s League and Firearm Owners Against Crime — threatened to sue. Television news outlet WTAE reported on that threat.

Soon after WTAE posted the December 17 story to Facebook, commenters shared nuggets of wisdom like: “Common sense gun control is code for let us take your guns,” “[Pittsburgh Mayor Bill] Peduto wants to change the 2nd amendment to ‘bike Lanes shall not be infringed,’” and “When guns are outlawed only outlws [sic] will have guns.”

Justin Dillon saw an opportunity.

A 32-year-old computer programmer living in Erie, Pennsylvania, with his wife and two kids, Dillon became a Second Amendment rights activist in “2012 or 2013” after an officer stopped him while open carrying a sidearm on State Street in Erie. The cop threatened to take away Dillon’s permit, which he says wasn’t even possible, because firearms permits are under the purview of the county sheriff. Dillon says that he made a formal complaint against the police officer, who was taken off the street. “That really lit fire in me that has yet to be extinguished,” Dillon says.

He founded Open Carry Pennsylvania, which monitors social media and organizes rallies whenever Dillon senses a threat to gun owners’ rights.

Open Carry Pennsylvania is a grassroots organization at its most basic level. Made up of “six or seven” members from around the state, Dillon says, “We’re not registered as a nonprofit organization. All our money is our personal money, is what we personally put in and invest in. Us going down there, the food, the trips, the rallies, and permits, anything like that is gonna be for us.”

But it’s people like Dillon — and groups like Open Carry Pennsylvania — that ensure that the “commonsense” legislation proposed by politicians such as members of Pittsburgh City Council doesn’t go very far.

Shawn Thomas Jones, mingles with other gun rights advocates in the lobby of the Pittsburgh City County building before a city council public hearing over proposed gun legislation. Photo by Pete Marovich of American Reportage

They certainly don’t appear to be an organized, legislation-killing cohort.

In mid-December, a local gun owner named Shawn Thomas Jones had the idea for a Second Amendment rally in downtown Pittsburgh. That night, sitting on his couch, he created a flyer and posted it on Facebook. Soon, Dillon, who has organized his fair share of political rallies in the last few years, filed for a permit. The event organizers specified in their Facebook post that while this wasn’t an “open carry” rally, attendees were welcome to proudly display their firearms. And on January 7, that’s exactly what they did: hundreds marched with them, toward the steps of the City-County Building on Grant Street in downtown Pittsburgh, openly carrying and displaying guns. They waved flags and held protest signs, too. There were Gadsden flags (the yellow “don’t tread on me” snake flags), traditional American flags, and a white flag with the silhouette of an M16 printed on it, one that dared the reader to “COME AND TAKE IT.” Also spotted was the flag of a group called the Oath Keepers, which the Anti-Defamation League calls “a large but loosely organized collection of anti-government extremists who … explicitly focus on recruiting current and former military members, police officers and firefighters.” And at least one person was spotted wearing a hooded sweatshirt bearing the logo of the Laurel Highlands Ghost Company, a Latrobe-based militia whose leader caused controversy last year by attending the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville. Since there are dozens of antigovernment “patriot” groups in Pennsylvania, it should surprise no one that the patriot movement was well-represented.

A group called Three Percenters Original under the command of Boyd Martin of Snyder County, about 50 miles north of Harrisburg, provided security for the event — members of the 12-man team were easily spotted in their neon-green caps with “III” insignia. Martin says that his group is not a militia. Rather, it is “a national organization made up of patriotic citizens who love their country, their freedoms, and their liberty. We are committed to standing against and exposing corruption and injustice.” Of course, the group’s beliefs and mission are virtually indistinguishable from those of its right-wing militia allies, so this distinction will probably be lost on most people.

The Three Percenters Original has “the exact same beliefs” as Open Carry Pennsylvania, Dillon says. “They understand that firearms is a fundamental right for humans to have, and so they support any and all pro-gun movements. They follow closely, they support us, they’ve been at rallies. This is the first time that I’ve had one where they asked to get involved, they reached out to me.”

There was also some evidence of the crossover between right-wing populism and the internet conspiracy theorists in the crowd. One man in camouflage fatigues had a patch on his jacket featuring the symbol “/k/” — the name of 4chan’s weapons discussion board. Another guy had the kind of plastic yellow vest worn by French protesters and Amazon warehouse employees, on which he printed the word “Q Anon” in magic marker. (Q Anon refers to one of the more absurd conspiracy theories promoted by some supporters of President Donald Trump). Another individual had a confusing system of handmade signs that were meant to explain his theory that mass shootings are hoaxes (the crux of his argument being that David Hogg and Emma Gonzalez, survivors of the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, are cousins).

The event’s speakers took every available opportunity to portray themselves as being on the sane, sensible side of the gun debate. One even went so far as to Google the definition of “common sense” and read it to the crowd from the podium. The idea, of course, was that the open carry activists are the reasonable ones here. And perhaps they are — even if their sensible side is compromised by a controversial interpretation of the Second Amendment.

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Dillon became a Second Amendment rights activist in “2012 or 2013” after an officer stopped him while open carrying a sidearm on State Street in Erie.

Robert Spitzer is the chair of the Political Science Department at SUNY Cortland, as well as the author of over a dozen books, including “The Politics of Gun Control” and “The Right to Bear Arms: Rights and Liberties Under the Law.”

“In terms of a form of protest,” he says, open carry, as a concept, “is relatively new. And by that I mean going back maybe 10 years, 15 years, something like that. I don’t think much farther than that.”

According to Spitzer, open carry exists as a legal activity largely “because of the obvious need to allow legal transportation of guns, carrying of guns from one place to another.” It was never mentioned in the Bill of Rights, and it certainly isn’t “constitutional carry,” as some Second Amendment activists have taken to calling it.

“Because it’s legal,” Spitzer says, “that translates for gun rights people as meaning that it’s protected under the Second Amendment,” which says more about the success of the gun lobby over the last four decades than it does about the intentions of the Founding Fathers.

“There’s certainly no reason to believe that there is a Second Amendment right to carry guns around openly, just for the sake of doing it,” he says. “There have always been exceptions made for carrying guns because you’re going somewhere. You know, you’re going hunting, you’re transporting a weapon for some purpose. That is going back to the 1600s. Those exceptions have always existed. But just to do it as a display or protest activity, there’s no reason to believe the Second Amendment protects that. But it is legal,” in most states.

District of Columbia v. Heller is the landmark Supreme Court ruling that struck down Washington’s gun control laws in 2008. It established for the first time that the Second Amendment guarantees an individual’s right to have arms for self-protection. This was the “judicial activism” that the conservatives have been screaming about for years — and ironically, it came from the conservatives of the Supreme Court. Before Heller, it had always been agreed that the Second Amendment was tied to militia service, but that is no longer the case. Although this might be seen as a “win” for gun rights activists, it also underscores how the Second Amendment does not preclude the kind of “commonsense” gun control that the Pittsburgh City Council is considering.

In the majority opinion, Justice Antonin Scalia pointed out that:

Like most rights, the Second Amendment right is not unlimited. It is not a right to keep and carry any weapon whatsoever in any manner whatsoever and for whatever purpose: For example, concealed weapons prohibitions have been upheld under the Amendment or state analogues. The Court’s opinion should not be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on the possession of firearms by felons and the mentally ill, or laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings, or laws imposing conditions and qualifications on the commercial sale of arms.

Even if Pittsburgh passed gun control legislation, it would not be enforceable, Spitzer says. This is due to the state’s preemption law. “Pennsylvania has a law that says that localities may not enact regulations more strict than the existing state regulations regarding guns,” Spitzer says. That’s why Justin Dillon was able to have Erie’s gun ban overturned. And this very well might prevent the City of Pittsburgh from enforcing its own gun control legislation. But it’s one thing to mount a legal battle against policies you don’t agree with. (That’s what the Allegheny County Sportsmen’s League and Firearm Owners Against Crime are planning to do.) It’s another thing altogether to claim that these policies are a dire attack on our constitutional rights.

The former makes for a boring policy discussion. The latter is a recruiting opportunity for Second Amendment purists.

Gun rights activist, Val Finnell, of McKees Rocks, Pa., came to the podium with a thick bound petition including what he said were 8,000 signatures demanding that the mayor and council withdraw the ordinances during a city council public hearing over proposed gun legislation in the lobby of the Pittsburgh City County building. Photo by Pete Marovich of American Reportage

Carolyn Ban, a member of the Dor Hadash congregation, speaks in the lobby of the Pittsburgh City County lobby during a city council public hearing over proposed gun legislation. Photo by Pete Marovich of American Reportage

On January 24, almost three weeks after the rally, the Pittsburgh City Council held a public hearing on the proposed gun legislation. Due to concerns about the size of the crowd, the meeting was moved from council chambers to the lobby of the City-County building. Council was seated at tables just inside the Grant Street doors; a large floodlight was erected behind the council, blinding you if your eyes drifted over the head of City Council President Bruce Kraus. About 75 registered speakers were given three minutes to comment on the proposed legislation. Due to a substandard public address system that reduced everything to a veritable static, unless you were at the very front of the line, you couldn’t really hear the proceedings at all.

The objections to the legislation ran the gamut of gun lobby talking points — it violated the Second Amendment, it violated Pennsylvania’s constitution, the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, etc. — while many supporters of the legislation shared personal stories of the impact of guns in their lives. Quite a few of the speakers who supported the legislation were teenagers, and the youngest was 6 years old. Whenever a student took to the podium, a guy in front would hold a cellphone aloft with a message on the screen in all caps: “WHO COACHED THE KIDS?”

Throughout the evening, both Mayor Peduto and the City Council were accused of “demagoguery,” compared to Stalin and Hitler, and threatened with impeachment. One guy said he would personally arrest any City Council members who voted for the legislation. While no one overtly threatened violence, it couldn’t have felt good to have so many “Second Amendment people,” as Trump has called them, stating the intention to take the law into their own hands.

The gun lobby and right-wing groups have overseen a dramatic reimagining of the Second Amendment over the last several decades, and it’s largely through boisterous public protests (and fundraising efforts that feed off this energy) that the movement is kept alive. But it’s highly unlikely that lawmakers in Harrisburg would ever be moved by rallies alone. In the case of Pittsburgh’s proposed legislation, these events are mostly sideshow; a coalition made up of the Allegheny County Sportsmen’s League and Firearm Owners Against Crime retained a lawyer to fight the legislation in the courts. The group has already stated its intention to file private criminal complaints against any and all public officials responsible for the ban.

There are plenty who would say that the idea of having hundreds of people show up at a political rally with loaded firearms is a very bad idea, regardless of whether it is legal. This sort of thing is terrifying for a lot of people, and at worst it could be the precursor to a bloodbath.

Event organizer Shawn Thomas Jones disagrees. “As you can see from our rally there was no negligent discharges, no fights, no arrest. Not even one piece of litter was left on the ground.” By his account, the rally was an unqualified success. For Second Amendment activists like Jones, open carry is a valid protest tactic, a way to make his voice heard.

“People seem to pay a lot more attention when you have a large group of armed citizens walking around a populated downtown city,” he says. “More so than a group of people with a few signs shouting at the top of their lungs.”

Joseph L. Flatley is a journalist and filmmaker living in Pittsburgh. His writing has appeared in a number of outlets, including The Verge, Pando Daily, and Counterpunch. His short films have featured at Three Rivers Film Festival (Pittsburgh), NonPlussed Fest (Los Angeles) and Desert Daze (Joshua Tree, CA). He is also the co-founder of Blockbuster Microcinema.

Pete Marovich's photography has appeared in Time Magazine, The New York Times, Newsweek, The Financial Times, The Christian Science Monitor, Esquire, The Wall Street Journal, Mother Jones, Sports Illustrated, Woman’s World, The Huffington Post, Politico, Essence, Bloomberg Businessweek, The Chronicle of Higher Education and The Daily Beast. Pete is a founding member of American Reportage. Helives in the Washington, D.C. metro area with his wife, Jenny, and their two cats.

Editor’s Note:

* A previous version of this story referred to the Allegheny County Sportsmen’s League and Firearm Owners Against Crime as “gun industry lobbying groups.” That description is inaccurate; while both groups advocate for Second Amendment rights, neither group is explicitly tied to any firearm manufacturer. We regret the error.

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