About 40 demonstrators armed with pistols and rifles – and a 19-month-old toddler with a toy gun – took to the streets of downtown St. Louis on Saturday afternoon to assert their right to carry guns openly in public.
The crowd walked along sidewalks from Citygarden to the Gateway Arch, surprising tourists along the route. The heavily armed crowd shouted “Congrats!” to surprised wedding parties posing for pictures in Kiener Plaza.
They carried pistols in holsters and long guns slung from their shoulders.
About 10 St. Louis police officers watched the gathering at Citygarden but didn’t interfere or follow the group on their walk. National Park police snapped pictures as the group walked on to the Arch grounds.
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At Citygarden, a slightly larger group of counterprotesters gathered, many coming from a nearby meeting of Amnesty International.
They drew chalk outlines of bodies on the pavement, bearing the names of people shot by police. They called it a “die-in.”
“Open carry is indecent exposure,” read one sign.
The two groups milled together at times and argued their points with each other, for the most part politely.
The protest was organized by Jeffry Smith, an accountant from Cincinnati who came armed with two holstered pistols and an Israeli Tavor long gun, with a 30-round magazine, draped across his chest. He has organized similar demonstrations in Ohio.
The demonstration was called “to exercise the newly codified rights in the Missouri Constitution,” he said. Voters in August passed a state constitutional amendment strengthening the right to own firearms. The Missouri Legislature passed a separate law that effectively removed municipal bans on openly carrying weapons.
The combination appears to make it legal for anyone with a concealed weapons permit to carry a weapon openly as well. Smith and his supporters contend that anyone who can legally own a weapon can now carry it openly without a permit.
The event Saturday should “demonstrate the legality of it,” Smith said.
At an afternoon news conference, Mayor Francis Slay called the armed stroll a “scene out of a bad Western.”
“This is not Deadwood, South Dakota, in the 1870s,” he said. “In Deadwood, there was no law, but in Missouri, it is the law,” he said referring to the legal ability to walk around openly carrying guns. “I don’t know what is worse.”
He said the law on guns is now “confusing,” even to police. Aides said it is under legal challenge.
Slay denounced the demonstration and called for stricter controls on the carrying of guns.
At the demonstration, Sierrah Lewis, 19, of Fenton, came pushing a stroller with a 19-month-old girl. Lewis carried a holstered .45-caliber pistol. The blond toddler fingered a plastic Nerf gun toy.
More people with guns will “keep the streets safer,” Lewis said. “I think we should be able to do this.”
“We should always be prepared for an attack,” said John Rickoff, a retired mail carrier from Des Peres, explaining why he was carrying a pistol. He said he was there to “establish my human rights.”
“I think it’s creepy,” said Jane Oliphant of University City, who walked through the armed group with others from the Amnesty International meeting.
Counterdemonstrator Tef Poe, of Hands Up United and the Organization of Black Struggle, said the calm police reaction was in contrast to police behavior at protests in Ferguson.
“When we protest in a similar manner, without guns, they proceed with aggression and arrest,” Poe said.