Christopher J. Grisham formally declared his intention Wednesday to run as a Republican candidate for the Texas State Senate, making him if not the first, then at least the most well-known open-carry activist to run for major political office to date. The 41-year-old Grisham is the founder of Open Carry Texas, an organization whose high-profile and frequently controversial demonstrations — including a planned march in Houston’s predominantly African-American Fifth Ward that was “indefinitely postponed” after friction with community activists — have arguably made it the most nationally recognizable face of the open-carry movement.
Grisham, who goes by “C.J.,” first gained national attention in March 2013, when he was arrested by Temple, Texas, police officers while openly carrying an AR-15 on a hike with his son. Though Grisham was allowed to openly carry a long gun under Texas law, a heated encounter ensued between him and the arresting officer, all of which was captured on a video that went viral in pro-gun circles. Grisham was ultimately convicted of “interfering with the duties of a peace officer,” a misdemeanor, and fined $2,000. (He appealed the ruling.)
Soon after his arrest, Grisham and his supporters began lobbying for changes in Texas’s open-carry laws, and in 2013, Open Carry Texas was founded. Yet despite some gains, including recently broadened open-carry legislation that he and his group claim some credit for, Grisham grew frustrated by a perceived lack of support from conservative lawmakers in the state’s Republican-dominated legislature. So when his local senator, Republican Troy Fraser, announced that he would not be seeking reelection, Grisham decided to run for the seat himself. “Instead of having to rely on other people to file bills to bring liberty back to Texas, I want to be the guy that files those bills,” he tells The Trace.
A key plank in Grisham’s platform will be a push for constitutional carry, which allows gun owners to carry a firearm, openly or concealed, without a permit. He describes the principle this way: “If you can legally possess a firearm, then you should be able to carry that firearm, openly or otherwise, without having to beg the government for permission.” Grisham views Texas’s current concealed-carry law as an unnecessary burden, and considers the various fees involved in the process — which altogether total some $250 — as onerous.
“I believe in the exact same barriers, licensing, and training laws that were present when the Second Amendment was ratified,” he says. “If it wasn’t present in 1791, I don’t want it now.”
Among the barriers Grisham would like to see abolished are those that prevent individuals with nonviolent criminal histories from obtaining guns or permits. Concealed handgun permits in Texas, he argues, can be denied because of trivial misdemeanors (like failing to follow rules on pet vaccinations). Grisham maintains that laws barring felons from owning guns should likewise be reconsidered. “Martha Stewart is a felon, but she’s only a danger to a pork chop,” he says, adding as another example that “a 17-year-old kid who’s tried and convicted of a nonviolent felony has lost his right to keep and bear arms for the rest of his life.”
Grisham also opposes blanket restrictions on the mentally ill, arguing that Americans need “to stop blaming categories of people and start blaming people.” Before he founded OCT, Grisham was an Army master sergeant who developed a following as a blogger writing about veteran’s affairs and post-traumatic stress disorder. Based on his experiences with those suffering from mental illness, he believes that the overwhelming majority of such people are nonviolent.
He acknowledges that, taken together, his position on gun rights might be viewed by some people as “extreme,” but he says, “that just means it’s extreme … compared to where the GOP sits today. I’m an extremist, but so [are] Rand Paul and Ted Cruz.” Asked for a definition of what an extremist pro-gun position would entail from his perspective, Grisham says, “I think the only extremist position there could be is the belief that you have a right to point a gun at people and tell them what to do without facing retribution.”
Grisham admits that he’ll face challenges on the campaign trail. For one thing, he anticipates opposition from more moderate members of his own party, who he claims capitulate on gun-rights issues in an effort to “get along.” “I believe in fighting for our constitutional values, and in doing so unapologetically.” He also foresees pushback from gun safety groups and from police unions, as he’s been particularly critical of abuses of police power since his 2013 arrest.
Perhaps more problematically, Grisham can’t rely on the support of the National Rifle Association, despite his adamantly pro-gun platform. “I’m on the outs with them,” he admits. After an NRA-ILA staffer labelled demonstrations by Texas Open Carry — in which members strolled into fast-food restaurants with semiautomatic rifles strapped to their backs — as “downright scary” last year, Grisham threatened to “rip up my cards and burn my certificates on camera if they don’t change their stance.” (The NRA rapidly backpedalled and went on to support open-carry legislation in the state.)
Instead, Grisham is counting on a highly motivated campaign staff (headed by former Oklahoma Speaker of the House Lance Cargill) and a grassroots following. He doesn’t see himself as a protest candidate, and he hopes his “hard-line” position on illegal immigration and staunchly pro-life stance will earn him support beyond single-issue gun-rights voters.
Grisham is running in Texas’s District 24, which stretches between Abilene and San Antonio. While Grisham says his declared opponents have already collectively pledged some half-million dollars to their campaigns, he remains unconcerned about fundraising. “If you’ve got a good message,” he says, “you don’t need to spend money.”
[Photo: AP Photo/Christopher Sherman]