There weren’t many of them, but they were noticeable. Standing with their legs wide apart, their holstered guns on their hips or thighs, a handful of Donald Trump supporters decided to assert their Second Amendment rights at the America First rally in Cleveland’s riverside Settlers Landing Park on July 18, the first day of the Republican National Convention–just like they promised they would before the event.
“If you don’t use your freedom to defend your freedom, you will lose your freedom. I don’t need to carry a handgun. I choose to, because I have the right to,” said Richard Morrell, a 39-year-old maintenance worker who came to Cleveland from San Antonio, Texas. “Guns are a wonderful, safe thing. Sure, they kill people, but we’re not going to outlaw trucks because someone ran over 80 people in France,” he said, referring to the attack in Nice last week. He was carrying a Smith & Wesson 9mm model on his hip.
On Sunday, Stephen Loomis, head of the Cleveland police union, implored Ohio governor John Kasich to suspend the state’s open carry laws for the convention, following the shooting of three police officers in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, by a former Marine with a semi-automatic rifle. But his appeal was to no avail. “Ohio governors do not have the power to arbitrarily suspend federal and state constitutional rights or state laws as suggested,” Kasich responded.
Instead, Loomis said, Cleveland officers would focus their attention on those carrying weapons around downtown Cleveland. “We are going to be looking very, very hard at anyone who has an open carry,” he said, particularly those carrying AR-15 rifles, shotguns, or multiple handguns.
One of the criticisms of open carry laws is that they prevent law enforcement from establishing who poses danger and who doesn’t. In Dallas earlier this month, the police mistook a man who was open-carrying his weapon to be the shooter who killed five police officers, causing a frenzy and a flurry of death threats against the gun owner.
Sherry Whitlow, a 59-year-old retired school worker, said she felt safe with all the guns around. “I prayed about it a lot, I’m confident that we have a lot of people to protect us if something would happen: the cops and bikers and other people who brought guns.”
Protecting voters’ right to bear arms is an important part of Trump’s platform–although, like with many other issues, the presumptive Republican candidate appears to have changed his mind on gun control for the purposes of the election.
Jan Morgan, a gun rights advocate known for banning Muslims from her shooting range in Arkansas, touted Trump’s gun record in a speech at the rally. “His sons are gun enthusiasts! He supports 50-state reciprocity,” exclaimed Morgan, who herself had a handgun tucked behind her belt. (Reciprocity allows gun permits from one state to carry over to another).
The people I spoke with underlined that they didn’t agree with everything Trump, or the GOP have to say. But they all believed the billionaire would defend their right to own a gun.
Steven Kurik, 25, came to Cleveland from rural Pennsylvania, where he carries a concealed weapon every day. He brought his Glock to the rally, strapped to his thigh. He said that where he lives, it could took as long as two hours for law enforcement to arrive at his home in case of danger. “We use them to protect ourselves,” he said. Although he’s never fired it at a person, Kurik said, he’s had to use a gun to chase off trespassers.
Shane Rodriguez, 30, a Mexican-American from northern Ohio, came to the rally with a friend. Both of them donning “Make America Great Again” baseball caps, they wore their handguns in belt holsters over their cargo shorts. Rodriguez said he carries a gun every day, both to protect himself and to exercise his rights. “I’m open carrying, and I haven’t seen any criminals walking up to me,” he said. The self-professed libertarian added that the United States is a democracy, “and in order to instill that, citizens have to be armed.”
Morrell agreed about the need to defend oneself against the government. “If you disarm your citizens, only the bad guys are going to have guns. Then you also have a government who has guns—and citizens who do not. And then you are subject to a tyrannical government. It keeps the Republic in place.”
Morrell, who has three children, keeps a semi-automatic at home. His wife also knows how to use a gun, he said. He listed his reasons for owning a semi-automatic:
“One: I can. Two: The government’s targeted that, for us not have it, which is against the Second Amendement. Three: They are very fun. Four: You can hunt with them. Five: You can defend your home with them.”
Read more from Quartz on the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland.