As David Smith stood guard before a rally in downtown Houston, cradling a rifle across his chest, heckles rained down on him from a group of men and women across the street.
It’s not an unusual scene when politically left and right groups mingle, except it was Smith from the Houston Socialist Movement brandishing a rifle, not the red-hatted and camouflage-wearing protesters.
“Houston Socialist Movement believes that we ought to execute that right to self-defense,” Smith said. “If we’re going to ask our people to come to our events, we’re not going to let participants get hurt.”
Members of the Houston Socialist Movement, who hosted a rally against Texas Senate Bill 4, better known as the “show me your papers bill” that goes into effect September 1, have carried firearms at events before, but Saturday’s gathering in front of City Hall marked the first time the group openly flaunted rifles.
According to Smith, it won’t be the last.
The extra safety measures coincided with this weekend’s violent clashes in Charlottesville, Virginia, in which white nationalists and right-wing groups fought with counter-protesters. But Chris Snider, a Houston Socialist Movement member who also carried a rifle at Saturday’s rally, said the group has been considering open-carrying for a long time.
An incident after a rained-out rally in July “sort of just accelerated our plans,” Smith said. As attendees of the event left for their cars, they were approached by a group of men and women dressed in camouflage and carrying shields and batons, Snider said. Nothing escalated, but the Houston Socialist Movement became determined to display a willingness to fight back.
“Hopefully us proactively showing a sign of strength will quell anything,” Snider said.
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Smith said the Houston Socialist Movement has reached out to other local left-leaning groups about openly carrying at events. Organizations in Texas have the advantage of the state’s lean gun laws. Anyone over 21 years old and without a felony can acquire a license-to-carry permit in the state. As of this year, more than 1 million Texans
“You’re seeing more and more people on the left starting to open carry weapons to send a message to the other side, like, ‘Don’t even think about it,’” Smith said.
Neither Smith or Snider are concerned about the guns escalating instances of violence. On Saturday, officers from the Houston Police Department placed gates for entry into the rally and mostly monitored the counter-protesters stationed across Walker Street. Dust-ups were mostly contained to verbal assaults. Something Smith is fine with.
“Petty name-calling — if that’s the worse they can do, it’s a wonderful day,” he said.