This year’s annual “South By Southwest” conference of upper-middle tier social media managers and brand ambassadors will be interesting for two reasons: Barack Obama will be there to get out of going to Nancy Reagan’s funeral, and there will simultaneously be a lot of men with handguns.
Open Carry Texas is a group whose mission is as simple as its name. They believe that as many people as possible should own and carry loaded weapons. One of the larger, non-legislative obstacles to this ideal is the fact that many Americans have the deeply rational stance that guns are dangerous, in that they make it very easy to murder someone and also pose a great risk of accidentally murdering someone. According to OCT, people only believe that because most people are not around guns very often—and if you force people to be exposed to guns, they’ll gradually lose their natural fear.
This plan was complicated when a member of OCT’s 28,000-strong closed Facebook group posted a threat against Obama:
The group’s leader, CJ Grisham, also made a vaguely ominous comment about the upcoming event:
(Both screenshots were provided to me by a representative for Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense Texas, who described Open Carry Texas as an “extremist” group and said they’ve been monitoring the group online)
It’s these two remarks that have turned OCT’s presence in Austin into a national news item this week. Reached by phone, Grisham downplayed both Kriss Elliott’s comments and his own, saying that the former was probably an outsider “plant” placed by anti-gun activists, and that his own “this may get interesting” remark referred to nothing more than Obama-induced traffic jams in Austin.
I asked him to elaborate on this second point: “Anytime the president comes around, everybody flips out and starts freaking out, they start putting their boot down the neck of the Constitution.” He added that “We’re not out there [at SXSW] for president Obama, we’re there to oppose what president Obama stands for.”
Grisham said he’s not planning on attending any actual SXSW events, given that the festival itself bans weapons (“I don’t go anywhere where I’m disarmed”) and he himself doesn’t drink: “I don’t have a lot in common with much of South By Southwest, I love music, [but] there’s an anti-liberty element.”
He was also quick to point out that this will be the third year OCT attends SXSW—so why the fuss now? This year is the first since Texas legalized the open carry of handguns, sure. But the piqued national interest is probably because, no matter the reasoning, a group of (largely if not entirely white) armed men who despise Obama showing up to a place Obama is visiting is generally Not A Good Look.
Despite appearances, Grisham insists his group confrontation isn’t in fact a confrontation: “We don’t force ourselves on anybody,” he told me, adding “We have a problem in this country where we’re comfortable with government being armed but not the people being armed.” So why do this at a music/tech festival that generally attracts a left-leaning yuppie crowd? “The benefit of South By Southwest is the conversation...we get to directly confront the narratives of the anti-gun crowd.”
Again, this sounds very much like a confrontation, especially given the use of the word “confront.” A later remark that “If [SXSW attendees] don’t like the sight of guns in public, turn the other way” added to this characterization.
I asked him how deliberately causing discomfort for a large crowd of nonpartisan festival-goers would help his cause:
“I don’t care that people are uncomfortable, that’s their problem. How someone feels really doesn’t matter when it comes to constitutional principles. As a man who is somewhat disgusted by homosexual behavior, I don’t think I should have to see two men kissing in public, and I will never stop them from doing so, that is their right to be gay, that is their right to kiss in public and grope in public.”
The parallels between proud gay rights activists—If this makes you uncomfortable, thats your problem—and open carry activists was an interesting one that Grisham himself was eager to emphasize:
“People who are anti-gay think people who exercise their right to love whomever they want are confrontational ... People [in this country] are not talking to each other, they’re focused on an object, whether it be a kiss between men or a holstered handgun.”
Asked if he’d say anything to the president should he run into him at SXSW, perhaps eating a taco, Grisham told me “I would want to talk to Obama about are how he’s destroying my military.”