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How bringing rifles to Chipotle backfired on gun rights activists

An open carry demonstration in Romulus, Michigan on April 27.
An open carry demonstration in Romulus, Michigan on April 27.
Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images
Dylan Matthews is a senior correspondent and head writer for Vox's Future Perfect section and has worked at Vox since 2014. He is particularly interested in global health and pandemic prevention, anti-poverty efforts, economic policy and theory, and conflicts about the right way to do philanthropy.

You might have heard about "open carry" activists in Texas bringing rifles into public places or business establishments, like Chipotle or Wendy's. The goal is to normalize guns by placing them in everyday settings and showing that normal, law-abiding people carry them. But after Chipotle released a statement publicly asking people to leave their rifles at home when they're grabbing a burrito, CJ Grisham, the founder of Open Carry Texas, says he's rethinking that plan.

"We're going to ask our members to keep their long arms — which are rifles and shotguns — out of public establishments and private businesses," Grisham tells me. "Because it's not helping us right now. And it's shifting the conversation."

Looking at the press the group has received recently, it's easy to see his point. At a demonstration at Jack in the Box, the demonstrators were mistaken for robbers, and, according to Fort Worth police, the store's employees "locked themselves inside a freezer for protection out of fear the rifle-carrying men would rob them." (though to be fair, Grisham disputes this version of events). Chipotle and Jack in the Box responded to open carry demonstrations by asking customers to leave their guns at home. National press outlets picked up the Chipotle story, and Jon Stewart spent a segment on The Daily Show mocking the demonstrators:

The concession, Grisham emphasizes, is merely tactical. He notes that in states where you can legally carry long arms (such as Texas), people have the right to bring their shotguns wherever they please. But even before this move, he was, he claims, going above and beyond his legal duties to make people comfortable. "We'll usually call ahead and make sure it's okay first and get the approval, and we'll send in an unarmed person just to confirm first," he says.

The problem is that Open Carry Texas is a broad umbrella group and some members, in particular Open Carry Tarrant County, don't follow the best practices the statewide group recommends. Grisham's group split from the Tarrant County group after the Jack in the Box debacle, where none of the recommended precautions (calling ahead, sending in an unarmed person first to confirm, etc.) were taken. At one point last year, an activist outed a woman who called 911 during a demonstration, leading to aggressive harassment of her; according to Mother Jones' Mark Follman, the treatment spurred her to join the gun control group Moms Demand Action.

Grisham doesn't want to condemn groups that take other approaches, per se, telling me, "We support anybody who supports open carry." But he does emphasize that he personally wants to calm things down a bit. When the group releases 911 calls now, he says, the practice is to remove their identities. "We also remove the contact information so all you hear is a voice," he tells me. And he doesn't escape his own criticism. Whereas Grisham once referred to Moms Demand Action as "thugs with jugs" and "ignorant, retarded people," he told Follman he wants to clean up his language. "I've since decided that it's petty, it's childish, I'm not going to play those childish games anymore," he said. "So you won't catch me using 'thugs with jugs.'"

But the most notable change is certainly the move against demonstrations, and especially against photographing them. "We're trying to normalize guns in public. So why not treat it as a normal event? Why go in and say 'Look at me I'm carrying a gun?'" he says. "If it's normal treat it like it's normal." Of course, Grisham isn't a dictator and it's totally possible that other individuals and groups will continue bringing long arms into restaurants and other business establishments, backlash be damned. But his change of heart does suggest that some gun rights activists know how they're being perceived, and want a way out.

Further reading:

  • Matt Yglesias' post on Chipotle's decision to discourage gun wielding in its stores.
  • Mark Follman's feature on open carry activists' treatment of female gun control activists is very much worth your time.
  • Clare O'Connor at Forbes has been consistently great on this topic. Read her on the Jack in the Box and Chipotle incidents.

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