The men, more than a dozen of them, could not be missed assembling outside the Republican National Convention in Cleveland. Some were dressed in paramilitary gear and carried semiautomatic rifles. They were open carriers: Regular citizens who carry firearms in public as a form of protest, or to protect other people — or some combination thereof.
“We’re here for the protection of the citizens and the police,” Dan Stevenson, a member of West Ohio Minutemen, a militia group, told The Trace as he patrolled the RNC event zone.
The presence of open carriers outside the Quicken Loans Arena, where the Republican Party nominated Donald Trump as its presidential candidate on Tuesday, was expected. Over the past five years, visible firearms have become a regular, symbolic fixture at demonstrations and political events. Despite a last-ditch effort by the president of Cleveland’s patrolmen’s association to temporarily ban open carry in the city, Ohio remains one of 47 states that permit the practice in some form, making it perfectly legal for citizens to hang a rifle over their shoulder, or strap a handgun to their hip, and wander around public areas with the weapon in plain view.
Photojournalist Kyle Grillot was in Cleveland to capture images of open carriers as they assembled, and sometimes argued with counter protesters, outside the main event.
While city police were on alert for gun-wielding activists, the controversy meant that journalists were, too. On Monday, the few open carriers who turned out often commanded press gaggles bigger than those drawn by Trump’s less potent primary rivals. They also weren’t universally in support of the Republican nominee. “No religious tests, no mass round-ups, no to all of those things!” said Micah Naziri (seen at right in the second photo below). “I’m not trying to say all this NRA garbage.”
On Tuesday, open carry made a more dramatic showing at the convention, in the form of the West Ohio Minutemen. As militias are wont to do, the Minutemen marched. Asked why he had come, one member, Trevor Leis (second photo below — that’s him with “We the People” tattooed on his left forearm) answered simply: “Because we are free.”
In some ways, open carry is about exercising First Amendment rights via a provocative assertion of the Second. But when free speech and guns mix, discourse can become fraught, such as when Mark Steven, who had travelled to the convention from Anaheim, California, got into an argument with Devonn Bush of Cleveland.