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 incidents 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 was monitoring 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.”
Last week, during Obama’s health care town hall in Portsmouth, N.H., a man carrying a sign reading “It is time to water the tree of liberty” stood outside with a pistol strapped to his leg.
“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.
Phoenix was Obama’s last stop on a four-day tour of western states, including Montana and Colorado.
Authorities in Montana said Monday they received no reports of anyone carrying firearms during Obama’s health care town hall near Bozeman on Friday. About 1,000 people both for and against Obama converged at a protest area near the Gallatin Field Airport hangar where the event took place. One person accused of disorderly conduct was detained and released, according to the Gallatin Airport Authority.
Heather Benjamin of Denver’s Mesa County sheriff’s department, the lead agency during Obama’s visit there, said no one was arrested.
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. A permit is required if the weapon is carried concealed.
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.
A call to a Secret Service spokesman was not immediately returned Monday.
The National Rifle Association also did not return a call for comment.