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NRA calls Open Carry Texas protests ‘weird.’ A crack in gun rights bulwark?

No, the NRA hasn’t gone soft on gun rights. But it views carrying assault-style rifles into restaurants, as practiced by Open Carry Texas, as doing more harm to the movement than good.

The powerful US gun rights movement is increasingly critical of a small group of Texas gun owners who like to tote their large, black assault-style rifles into restaurants to lobby for laws that make it easier to carry handguns in the Lone Star State.

The National Rifle Association’s statement over the weekend calling the demonstrations at restaurants like Chili’s and Chipotle “downright scary” and the participants “weird” amounts to a rare public fracture in a movement that, behind the scenes, often debates how far US society should shift to mirroring Switzerland and Israel, where armed militia and army soldiers are visible everywhere from cafes to beaches.  

In response to the NRA comment, members of Open Carry Texas, a group pushing for more liberalized gun laws, posted photos on Facebook of their torn-up NRA membership cards.

The NRA’s declaration came after anti-gun forces, primarily the post-Sandy Hook group Moms Demand Action, have celebrated pleas from Starbucks, Chipotle, and other corporations for gun owners to leave firearms at home or in their cars.

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The NRA said, in essence, that the Open Carry Texas strategy is counterproductive because it feeds public fear that some seeking to expand gun rights into more corners of American life are neither responsible nor trustworthy.

“The fact is, a responsible person takes into account the feelings and wishes of other people, and a responsible person respects private property and doesn’t cause trouble on somebody else’s private property,” says Dave Kopel, research director at the Denver-based Independence Institute, which has in the past taken grants from the NRA.

Open Carry Texas has held that other people’s feelings shouldn’t be a concern for those who want to exert their Second Amendment rights any way they want.

“People are going to be alarmed and they are entitled to their own feelings, but we shouldn’t restrict people from doing stuff because other people feel or think a certain way,” Kory Watkins, a member of Open Carry Texas in Tarrant County, told CBS News.

Open Carry Texas has lately modified its strategy, however. It is asking demonstrators to get permission before they enter a restaurant fully armed.

The backstory is political. Texas allows open carry of long rifles, but not handguns. The demonstrations are, in part, a protest against the mostly Republican Texas legislature, which has not enacted an open carry law for handguns.

For the NRA, this is not the time – when the gun-rights lobby faces well-funded opposition – to leave any public impression that gun owners are reckless or irresponsible.

In April, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg launched a $50 million campaign to lobby the public to support stricter gun laws. The cash infusion is part of a tactic by activists to consolidate groups such as Mayors Against Illegal Guns and Moms Demand Action under the new umbrella of Everytown for Gun Safety. 

“[Open Carry Texas adherents] are in every practical respect allies of Michael Bloomberg,” says Mr. Kopel. “If he’s not paying them now, he ought to start.”

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Fervent debate on popular gun rights blogs indicates that the Open Carry Texas tactics have critics within the broader movement, as well.

“If legalizing open carry of pistols in Texas was an uphill climb before, it’s quickly growing into Mount Everest,” states Sebastian, a computer professional writing under a pen name who blogs at the “Shall Not Be Infringed” blog.

A May 30 missive from the NRA’s lobbying arm, the Institute for Legislative Action, ridiculed Open Carry Texas tactics. “It is a rare sight to see someone sidle up next to you in line for lunch with a 7.62 rifle slung across his chest, much less a whole gaggle of folks descending on the same public venue with similar arms,” the statement read. “Let’s not mince words. Not only is it rare, it’s downright weird … [and can be] downright scary.”

To be sure, Dave Weigel at Slate suggests that the NRA’s stance doesn’t mean, as some left-leaning bloggers have suggested, that America’s premier gun-rights group is “mellowing … because the NRA isn’t arguing against the right of people to carry guns anywhere.” 

“No sea change at the NRA,” he surmises.

The conflict is baring long-standing tensions inside the gun community about the NRA and its role. The NRA in the past has been at odds with passionate state gun groups over support of constitutional carry laws, says Paul Valone, president of Grass Roots North Carolina, a powerful state gun lobby.

To Mr. Valone, the NRA’s response, in part, acknowledges the powerful role of small gun rights groups in the broader campaign to advance the Second Amendment and to “normalize” gun-carry.

The kerfuffle over Open Carry Texas’ tactics highlights a dynamic in the gun rights movement where “the grass roots are running the show and where the NRA is forced to march at the head of the parade,” says Valone.