When around 800 Black Lives Matter protesters marched through downtown Dallas, Texas, on the night of June 7, they were flanked by 100 police officers assigned to protect the event.
The march started out peacefully; officers wore short-sleeved summer uniforms instead of riot gear to show unity with the protesters, and activists stopped to talk and take pictures with officers.
But when gunfire erupted, targeting those officers, chaos ensued. Adding to the confusion were the 20 to 30 protesters who were decked out in tactical gear and carrying rifles slung over their shoulders—Texas allows the open carry of firearms.
Police, unsure of where the shots were coming from, chased after the fleeing citizens carrying weapons. Many were questioned, and one was named a person of interest—a photo of the man in camouflage and carrying a rifle was circulated around the Internet until he turned himself in for questioning.
Ultimately, the man who fired the shots was not a part of the protest and had been waiting in the fringes for an opportunity to start shooting. He killed five police officers before being killed himself by law enforcement.
In the aftermath of the shooting, which was the deadliest incident for U.S. law enforcement since 9/11, tensions flared around the rights of citizens to wield guns. Less than two weeks after the Dallas shooting, a man shot and killed three police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, and a man fired into a group of Bastille Day revelers in Nice, France, before driving his vehicle into the crowd and killing 84 people.
Lieutenant Robert Sellers with the Ohio State Highway Patrol was acutely aware of these events leading up to the U.S. Republican National Convention, which was being hosted in Cleveland and began less than 24 hours after the Baton Rouge shooting.
Like Texas, Ohio is one of the 45 states with open carry laws, and Sellers knew that people would be exercising their right to open carry at the convention. The Ohio State Highway Patrol was one of the law enforcement agencies called upon to provide security at the event.
“At the convention, you had thousands of people from across the nation who were there to participate in the political process, whether that be actually attending the convention, or if it was just to be there and make a statement of their views to the crowd,” Sellers tells Security Management. “We did have open carry advocates who had rifles march right into downtown, but they were perfectly within their lawful right to do so.”
The day before the convention, Cleveland Police Patrolmen’s Association President Steve Loomis urged Ohio Governor John Kasich to suspend open carry laws during the event, citing concerns about copycat attacks following the Baton Rouge shooting.
Kasich’s office rejected the request in a statement, noting “Ohio governors do not have the power to arbitrarily suspend federal and state constitutional rights or state laws as suggested.”
Sellers notes that while the police union’s request was in the interest of safety, “open carry demonstrations are just a part of protecting people exercising their rights as a whole.” (Loomis did not respond to a request for comment.)
The national convention had two levels of security: no firearms were allowed in the space directly around the convention center and within the building itself, as dictated by the U.S. Secret Service. Outside the secure area, including in designated public demonstration areas, attendees could legally carry guns.
“We remained visible around people open carrying, so that the public could see that we were there and monitoring the situation and would be reassured that nothing bad was going to happen,” Sellers explains. “It wasn’t a show of force—there were a lot of cops there—but we were very soft in our approach, we engaged the people, let them know that we were there to maintain order and allow them to exercise their rights.”
The approach is one Sellers says officers use on a day-to-day basis, not just at big events like demonstrations or the convention. If officers get a call about someone walking around with a gun, they have to tread carefully, he explains.
“Just because the person is open carrying and maybe has been reported as doing so, you can’t just stop and question him about it,” he notes. “That goes back to reasonable, articulable suspicion that a crime has or is about to occur.”
Law enforcement ideology wasn’t as straightforward in the aftermath of the Dallas shooting, though. Dallas Police Chief David Brown said that the open carry advocates at the protest complicated officers’ efforts to identify the shooter.
“We’re trying as best we can as a law enforcement community to make it work so that citizens can express their Second Amendment rights,” Brown said at a press conference. “But it’s increasingly challenging when people have AR-15s slung over their shoulders and they’re in a crowd. We don’t know who the good guy is versus the bad guy when everyone starts shooting.”
Brown suggested that state legislators look into the issue. A law allowing handguns to be carried openly went into effect on January 1—the open carry of rifles in Texas has long been legal—and handgun owners could open carry on public college campuses after a campus carry law went into effect August 1.
There has been vocal opposition to the measures, especially by campus safety groups—three University of Texas professors have sought a preliminary injunction to stop the implementation of the law. Police associations have generally opposed the gun legislation, and the Dallas County Sheriff’s Association, along with Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings, say they support city ordinances that would ban open carry during large events, like protests.
Police officers aren’t the only ones grappling with how to safely address citizens with guns. Lieutenant Michael DeStefano works on the training division of the Brevard County Fire Rescue in Florida and says fire and EMS first responders are helpless when dealing with armed citizens. Florida is a concealed carry state, but where DeStefano works, all county employees other than law enforcement are prohibited from carrying firearms on the job.
DeStefano says that he has responded to calls only to have a gun pulled on him, either by patients with dementia who forgot they called for help, or for more sinister reasons.
“If there are weapons involved, we’ll stage about two blocks away and wait for the police to get there and secure the scene before we make entry,” he tells Security Management.
DeStefano says that his team hasn’t received any hand-to-hand combat instruction, and the most training they have for dealing with an unexpected concealed carrier is active shooter training.
He notes that first responders have recently been given a more involved role in an active shooter situation: they are to follow armed police or SWAT officers into the scene of the shooting to aid victims while the officers clear the area. However, even in that situation, first responders can’t do much to defend themselves, he adds.
“The biggest problem that we have with the training is that when we attach ourselves to the SWAT team, if they’re engaged with the shooter, we’re told to go into the nearest room and barricade ourselves,” DeStefano says. “If for some reason the SWAT officers are engaged and they go down, now we become victims because we’re not armed.”
DeStefano notes that the decision to arm first responders is a department- by-department decision, and he recommends at least one member of every crew be armed on a voluntary basis, and that formal training be added on both weapons use and hand-to-hand combat.
“That way, if something does happen, we have that person who’s armed and has formal training on how to engage,” he explains. “The only time we’d be firing a weapon is in self-defense, not engagement—we aren’t sworn law officers who can make a judgment of who we should engage. It’s strictly a self-defense scenario."