Updated Wednesday, Oct. 29 to include organizer participant count.
Dozens of people armed with hand guns and long guns gathered in downtown St. Louis Saturday to put new Missouri gun laws to the test. With guns slung across chests and strapped to hips, the group walked from CityGarden to the Gateway Arch. According to event organizers, 72 open-carry supporters participated in the event.
But first, they spent about an hour talking amongst themselves and to passersby.
Gun rights activist Jeffry Smith organized the open-carry walk. He called it a walk instead of a march because the group stayed on the sidewalk and obeyed traffic signals.
Speaking in front of the CityGarden fountains, Smith said the event was intended to educate the public about Missouri’s new laws and show that guns are not necessarily dangerous.
“I’m well-armed here, but nothing’s happening. And why is nothing happening? Because I’m not doing anything with these guns, and neither are any of these people you see around you,” Smith said. “So it’s not the gun that is the problem, it’s the individual.”
Smith, a firearms instructor from Ohio, carried a long gun slung across his chest and two hand guns. He’s been planning the walk for more than a month and said that his decision to organize the walk was not influenced by recent protests against gun violence in St. Louis.
According to Smith, he chose this weekend because he was already planning to be in St. Louis. His son is a student at Saint Louis University.
As the armed group talked in CityGarden, another group of about 50 - 60 gathered in opposition to the open-carry walk. Most of the opposition came from members of Amnesty International in town for the human right group’s Midwest conference. On a break from the conference, Amnesty brought people to CityGarden to chalk body outlines and write the names of victims of gun violence.
Two women from St. Louis, Janet Matthews and Barb Steller, also joined the open-carry protest. Although they had never met before Saturday, the two stood side-by-side with handmade signs.
“When I heard that this march was going to happen, I knew without a doubt that I needed to be down here,” explained Matthews. ”I’m very opposed to open carry. I think that these people have a screw loose. I’m very upset that Missouri has allowed this.”
“I’m not against guns. I hunt, I shoot for sport, I skeet,” added Steller. “But the right to carry is just an escalation of violence, and I think we need to put an end to it if we can before more of our children are killed.”
Limits of Open Carry
Richard Lofftus of O’Fallon, Mo. helped Smith organize the open-carry walk by bringing a group of gun rights activists that he has worked with the past few years, advocating for the passage of a law permitting statewide open-carry.
“The thought that I could cross the street, be perfectly legal here, and be subject to arrest across the street is silly,” said Lofftus. “And for many years many of us here have been working with state legislators, writing our congressmen, writing our senators, saying you’ve got to change this.”
Last month state legislators overrode Gov. Jay Nixon’s veto of Senate Bill 656, and Lofftus’ goal of statewide open carry is now a reality. Under 656, individuals must have a concealed-carry permit in order to openly carry their weapons.
But Smith and Lofftus believe the gun rights amendment passed by Missourians in August expands open carry to include everyone who legally owns a gun.
“There are people here who would be willing to show a permit. And there are people here, like myself, who would not even be willing to say whether or not they have a permit,” Smith said, adding that he thinks people shouldn’t have to prove that they have permission to act in accordance with their rights.
About eight members of the St. Louis Metropolitan Police force observed the open-carry walk from a distance. Captain Dan Howard said that they weren’t going to check for concealed carry permits.
“There’s some confusion and some language issues in the city law and the state law, and so that’s what’s currently going to the courts,” Howard said. “We’re not going to fight that court battle here today. We’re just going to let them walk, let them walk back, and let the courts decide.”
At the Gateway Arch, Law Enforcement Specialist Mike Horton and a few park rangers observed the group. Horton had previously been in communication with walk organizers and said that he was primarily there to continue dialogue. Like the police, the park rangers did not check for permits.
Horton said that national parks like the Gateway Arch grounds fall under state laws in this instance, and as such rangers were following Senate Bill 656.
“It’s like somebody who’s required to have a driver’s license. If you’re driving down the road and you’re not committing any infractions, you wouldn’t expect a police officer to pull you over and just ask for your license,” Horton said. “So until we see an illegal or unsafe act, we are not asking for those permits.”
Response from Mayor Slay
Together with State Rep. Stacey Newman, D-Richmond Heights, and members of an anti-gun group, Mayor Francis Slay condemned the open-carry walk and the gun laws that make the walk legal.
“There’s far too much gun violence (in St. Louis), far too many people using far too many guns to try and settle disputes,” Slay said. “And to try to, in some way, use guns like these demonstrators did today as some sort of show of force is very disturbing to me.”
“You can dismiss these protesters prettily easily, say they are just extremists and you shouldn’t pay too much attention to them. And I believe that as well. But it’s not about what they’re doing here today. It’s about the law that allows them to do it. And that’s something we should take very seriously,” Slay added.
Slay wants to get both the constitutional amendment and the open-carry law repealed, but in the meantime he said they need to get the confusion about the laws cleared up.
Becky Morgan of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America said the open-carry-walk brought a confusing message for children who have been taught at school to hide from people with guns during active shooter drills.
“What are my kids supposed to think if I had brought them down to CityGarden today and they saw those people down there with firearms?” Morgan asked. “Am I supposed to say oh no, don’t worry about them, and disregard everything they’ve been taught year after year for the benefit of their safety in school?”
Follow Camille Phillips on Twitter: @cmpcamille.