When Kansas City police on Saturday ordered several armed demonstrators, including members of antifa groups, to remove ammunition from their guns during a protest at Washington Square Park, some observers had questions.
Why did police disarm the protesters? Is that legal, given that Missouri allows “open carry” with no permit?
Did police take this kind of action on Aug. 20, when militia members appeared at an anti-hate rally near the Country Club Plaza with handguns and rifles?
Who are the armed groups who have been showing up at Kansas City protests this year?
Questions about the limits of open carry and the dangers of having armed camps of protesters facing off have gained increased urgency across the country with the death of a protester last month in Charlottesville, Va. Racial and political tensions have been heightened by confrontations between white supremacists and antifa protesters, often with militia present as well.
Three times this summer in Kansas City, armed militia members from the Three Percent United Patriots movement appeared at protests with handguns and rifles. Some demonstrators said the militia made them nervous.
Then on Saturday, at an event billed as “Fight Back for Charlottesville” a group of antifa protesters — political opponents of the militia — brought handguns and rifles to a rally at Washington Square Park. Police advised those gathered — which also included some Three Percenters — of the city’s open carry ordinance and required those without a concealed carry permit to take the ammunition out of their weapons.
Everyone complied peaceably, though some members of the antifa groups said they thought the order contradicted state open-carry laws. Some asked whether militia members had been treated similarly at the Aug. 20 rally.
News of the incident led some to ask whether the antifa groups were singled out for selective enforcement and whether the city’s ordinance that police cited Saturday was new.
Is it legal to carry firearms openly in Kansas City? Do you need a permit?
The short answer is yes and yes.
Although Missouri law now generally allows both open and concealed carry of firearms without a permit, there are some exceptions, including restrictions by city ordinance.
The Kansas City ordinance police cited Saturday was 50-261. (a)(7), which says a person cannot openly carry a firearm “ready for lethal use”— loaded — unless they can show police a valid concealed carry permit.
Those restrictions have been in place since 2014, when the Kansas City Council passed a law banning open carry. Soon after, state law stopped the city from completely banning open carry, but allowed it to restrict open carry to those who have concealed carry permits.
Although Missouri law generally preempts local ordinances on a wide swath of gun issues, it carves out an exception to allow local restrictions on open carry — as long as those with concealed carry permits are allowed to carry openly as well.
And although Missouri, as of this year, no longer requires permits for concealed carry, the permits are still available through local county sheriff’s offices. Jackson County officials, for example, said they issue the permits because they can be valid for travel in other states and in cities with open carry limits.
Kevin Jamison, an attorney in Gladstone who handles cases involving weapons and self-defense, said the local ordinance is legal under state law.
“You can’t carry openly in a city that bans open carry unless you have a license to conceal,” Jamison said. “It does sound weird.
“The law allows for little loopholes for cities to be more restrictive. It’s like, switchblades are legal in Missouri but a lot of cities have laws against switchblades,” Jamison said.
If the demonstrators had been carrying their guns concealed, Jamison said, police would not have had a legal basis for disarming them.
Did police also disarm the Three Percent militia?
When armed militia members appeared at the Aug. 20 anti-hate rally by the Country Club Plaza, police checked and found that they had concealed carry permits, said Sgt. Kari Thompson, a Kansas City police spokeswoman.
But the anxiety surrounding that event prompted police to look more carefully at the city’s ordinances involving open carry.
On Saturday at Washington Square Park, police advised everyone — including antifa and Three Percenters — about the ordinance. They required those who were open-carrying firearms without a concealed carry permit to take the ammunition out of their guns.
Police also offered to arrange bus rides after the event so demonstrators could return safely to their cars, Thompson said.
She said police intend to enforce the ordinance at future protests.
“The unrest on August 20 really caused us to to take a step back and review our procedures and our policies,” Thompson said. “All groups that attended the event on Sept. 9 were treated fairly. We communicated with all groups.
“The police are at these functions only for the safety and security for those that attend,” she said. “We are not there to inject our beliefs or our feelings.”
One protester, Connolly Haywood, of Kansas City, said he thought police paid more attention to the antifa groups than they had the Three Percenters.
“The police presence was pretty heavy,” on Saturday, said Haywood, a member of the activist group Serve the People, whose members were not armed.
The armed antifa groups “were definitely leftists of some sort, and you could see the police go right to them,” Haywood said.
A Three Percenter from Missouri said he had been at the Saturday rally and that police were checking both Three Percenters and antifa.
“It’s not like they singled those people out,” said the man, who declined to give his name because he feared being targeted by opposing protesters. “Anybody that they suspected of carrying weapons, they checked. I got checked too.”
Who are the antifa and the Three Percenters?
Antifa, short for anti-fascist, is a movement of militant leftist activists promoting direct action against white supremacists and fascists. The name has been used to describe numerous local groups acting independently around the country, including in Kansas City.
“The idea of the antifa is that you don’t cede the streets to white supremacists,” Mark Pitcavage, a senior research fellow at the Anti-Defamation League’s Center on Extremism, said recently. That can include, he said, engaging in “mild to moderate street violence.”
Antifa activists, often wearing masks and sometimes carrying guns, have become increasingly visible since the election of President Donald Trump, Pitcavage said.
“The antifa started targeting Trump, especially after he was elected. Because rightly or wrongly, they viewed Trump as being racist,” he said.
In Kansas City, the groups that rallied under the antifa banner Saturday included members of the Kansas City Revolutionary Collective, which describes itself as an autonomous Marxist-Leninist-Maoist collective. It was this group that brought the armed protesters to Saturday’s rally, protesters said.
Also at the rally were members of Serve the People, which says on its website that it is a revolutionary anti-capitalist, anti-imperialist, anti-racist, proletarian feminist organization, and the Progressive Youth Organization, which describes itself as “a youth organization that aims to unite the widest possible section of progressive and revolutionary minded students and working class youth.”
Often standing in opposition to the antifa are members of Three Percent militia, which also includes numerous independent local groups. Members frequently wear military-style clothing and carry guns.
The Three Percenters take their name from the percentage of American colonists said to have taken up arms against the British. After years of steady growth, they have emerged as the militia movement’s biggest brand nationally.
Many members object to being called extremist militias, instead describing themselves as patriots who attend protests to help maintain order and prevent rioting.
More protests are expected in Kansas City later this year, and the Three Percenters said they also plan to attend.