AUSTIN, Texas — Thousands of gun advocates gathered peacefully Saturday at state capitals around the U.S. to rally against stricter limits on firearms, with demonstrators carrying rifles and pistols in some places while those elsewhere settled for waving hand-scrawled signs or screaming themselves hoarse.
The size of crowds at each location varied — from dozens of people in South Dakota to 2,000 in New York. Large crowds also turned out in Connecticut, Tennessee and Texas. Some demonstrators in Phoenix and Salem, Ore., came with holstered handguns or rifles on their backs. At the Kentucky Capitol in Frankfort, attendees gave a special round of applause for “the ladies that are packin’.”
Activists promoted the “Guns Across America” rallies primarily through social media. They were being held just after President Barack Obama unveiled a sweeping package of federal gun-control proposals.
The crowd swelled to more than 800 amid balmy temperatures on the steps of the pink-hued Capitol in Austin, where speakers took the microphone under a giant Texas flag with “Independent” stamped across it. Homemade placards read “An Armed Society is a Polite Society,” “The Second Amendment Comes from God” and “Hey King O., I’m keeping my guns and my religion.”
“The thing that so angers me, and I think so angers you, is that this president is using children as a human shield to advance a very liberal agenda that will do nothing to protect them,” said state Rep. Steve Toth, referencing last month’s elementary school massacre in Newtown, Conn.
Toth, a first-term Republican lawmaker from The Woodlands outside Houston, has introduced legislation banning within Texas any future federal limits on assault weapons or high-capacity magazines, though such a measure would violate the U.S. Constitution.
Rallies at statehouses nationwide were organized by Eric Reed, an airline captain from the Houston area who in November started a group called “More Gun Control = More Crime.” Its Facebook page has been “liked” by more than 17,000 people.
Texas law allows concealed handgun license-holders to carry firearms anywhere, but Reed said rally-goers shouldn’t expose their weapons: “I don’t want anyone to get arrested.”
A man who identified himself only as “Texas Mob Father” carried a camouflaged assault rifle strapped to his back during the Austin rally, but he was believed to be the only one to display a gun. Radio personality Alan LaFrance told the crowd he brought a Glock 19, but he kept it out of sight.
At the New York state Capitol in Albany, about 2,000 people turned out for a chilly rally, where they chanted “We the People,” “USA,” and “Freedom.” Many carried American flags and “Don’t Tread On Me” banners. The event took place four days after Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the nation’s toughest assault weapon and magazine restrictions.
Republican Assemblyman Steven McLaughlin said the new law was “abuse of power” by the governor. Some in the crowd carried “Impeach Cuomo” signs. Protester Robert Candea called the restrictions “an outrage against humanity.”
In Connecticut, where task forces created by the Legislature and Democratic Gov. Dannel Malloy are considering changes to gun laws, police said about 1,000 people showed up on the Capitol grounds. One demonstrator at the rally in Maine, Joe Getchell of Pittsfield, said every law-abiding citizen has a right to bear arms.
In Minnesota, where more than 500 people showed up at the Capitol in St. Paul, Republican state Rep. Tony Cornish said he would push to allow teachers to carry guns in school without a principal or superintendent’s approval and to allow 21-year-olds to carry guns on college campuses.
Capitol rallies also took place in Colorado, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Missouri, Montana, New Mexico, North Carolina, Ohio, Vermont and Wisconsin, among other states.
Back in Texas, Houston resident Robert Thompson attended the rally with his wife and children, ages 12, 5 and 4. Many in the family wore T-shirts reading: “The Second Amendment Protects the First.”
“What we are facing now is an assault weapons ban, but if they do this, what will do they do next?” Thompson asked.
William Lawson drove more than four hours from Wichita Falls and held up a sign reading “Modern Musket” over the image of an assault rifle and the words, “An American Tradition since 1776.”
“I’m not some wild-eyed person who wants to fight in the streets,” Lawson said. “This is a country of laws. But I want to protect our Constitution.”
Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson conceded that the Second Amendment sometimes leads to killings, but he told the crowd that the First Amendment can be just as dangerous. Patterson said news coverage of those responsible for mass shootings can spark copy-cat shootings.
“All of us here, together, are right about our liberty,” Patterson said. “And we will not back down.”