Guns have been present at most protests and demonstrations across Western North Carolina in the last two months. That included a rally for President Trump and the Second Amendment last weekend in Bryson City.
A North Carolina General Statute lists protests as one of many events where it is illegal to open carry a firearm.
That’s not something Bryson City Police Chief Charles Robinson had to deal with – until now. He says the Black Lives Matter March last month was the first protest in Bryson City in more than 100 years. Now Robinson says his department tries to balance that state statute against the U.S. Constitution.
“We try to come to a happy medium with the second amendment,” says Robinson.
This was on the case at Saturday’s “Armed Patriot Rally.” Guns were not allowed on county property but they were permitted on the premises.
“I’m trying to do something here. Bear with me… Oh say can you see by the dawn’s early light…”
That’s Mark Day singing.
“What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming…”
He and fellow Bryson City resident Patrick Smith organized the event. Day was one of many people who spoke about President Trump.
“It takes a businessman to run this country now, not a politician,” says Day.
“Go to that table and get registered. That's what’s wrong with this country - part of it. We’ve sat back too long,” explains Day pointing to a table set up for voter registration.
Joining them was Republican candidate Mike Clampitt, running to regain the District 119 in the state house of representatives, as well as Robert Lowe and Graham Allen, both of whom are running for Swain County Commissioner as a Republican and unaffiliated, respectively.
“Where’s that ‘Women for Trump’ flag at? Everyone give them a hand.”
That’s Matthew Messin.
He says he is a part of the local Young Republicans and works for the Trump campaign.
“This country needs strong women right now to stand up for what they believe in and those women right there are a perfect example. So I say thank you to them,” says Messin.
Many of those attending the rally sported Trump hats, American flags and guns. After the crowd did the Pledge of Allegiance, about a quarter raised their hands to say that they were veterans. About 200 people attended the event.
Organizer Patrick Smith explained that the group chose to keep their guns unloaded. He came to the event with an AR-15, a tactical vest and a handgun - all unloaded with the clips visible in the pockets of the vest.
“I can surely tell you that I am one ticked off patriot,” says Smith to the crowd.
Smith called on the crowd to ‘stop complaining’ and do something.
“If you ain’t mad about what’s going on in your country right now then there is something wrong with you,” says Smith.
Smith, who is originally from Louisiana is a detention officer. He says it’s time for a change in the U.S.
“If they don’t then things are going to get worse and you are going to see more situations that nobody wants to see. I feel like this is harmless, this is the most harmless manner,” he says. “Because if things keep going south, if things keep going worse. I’m afraid that people are going to take these firearms and use them in manners they shouldn’t be used.”
The North Carolina Security Force Three Percent was also present at the event. The Southern Poverty Law Center says some Three Percenter groups have ties to racist white supremacist groups. The leader of the statewide militia, who calls himself “Captain Infidel,” explains this group is part of a national group.
“We’re here to provide security and support. Anything that these guys may need to have a peaceful protest,” he says.
He says many served in the military and drove as much as six hours to attend the event. Their weapons were loaded.
However, the second in command of the operation, Roger Williams lives in Asheville and has worked in security.
“We heard this coming on, I saw the Facebook post and got everybody together, got committed. So we brought what guys could come out and show our support,” says Williams.
Police Chief Robinson says he had never heard of the group before the Three Percenters let him know that they would be at the event. Overall, he says he would not have banned firearms at the rally.
“It made things a bit more uncomfortable and a bit more stressful but we deal with people everyday with loaded firearms,” says Robinson. “That’s one thing about Western North Carolina - the South - it seems to be a pretty common thing.”
Jennifer Brown was one of about six counterprotesters at the rally. She’s from Bryson City.
She came to the event with her friend Tabitha Wiomot. Both were wearing “Dolly for President” t-shirts and brought a sign: “Love is greater than Hate.”
She says she fully supports the Second Amendment, but does not support the men dressed in military gear.
“I think that they aren't representing all people. They are only representing their own views and the military protects us all. The police protect us all. That’s what I respect about them,” says Brown, who says she was at the town's Black Lives Matter rally in June. She sees this event as a counter-protest.
While there were no arrests at the Bryson City protest, there have been at other rallies involving guns. Police in Asheville made arrests for gun possession following two separate rallies last month.