It’s hard to say whether it was a first, but it was certainly unusual: a pro-gun rally in the District.
And in front of city hall, no less, where elected officials in the heavily Democratic city have no qualms about promoting some of the strictest gun laws in the nation.
About 40 young people waved signs and voiced loud support for Second Amendment rights in the front of the John A. Wilson Building on Friday, capturing the attention of passing motorists and tourists with their argument that increased gun ownership equals increased public safety.
The rally occurred two days after an unarmed security guard was shot in the arm at the Family Research Council, a conservative organization in the District’s busy downtown, and in the wake of Mayor Vincent C. Gray vowing to preserve the city’s strict gun laws after the incident renewed debate about firearm safety in the city.
Organizer Mike Armstrong, 25, of Arlington, acknowledged the rally arrived on the heels of the FRC shooting, but said they had been planning a protest for some time. The debate around gun control shows no signs of stopping in the District or elsewhere in America, especially after mass shootings at a movie theater in Aurora, Colo., and at a Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wis.
Mr. Armstrong said armed residents might be able to stop such tragedies from escalating. He also said the District’s level of violence shows its strict gun laws are not working.
Mr. Gray begs to differ. The city is “currently on pace to have the lowest homicide rate it’s had in over 40 years — our laws are working,” his spokesman, Pedro Ribeiro, said Friday.
Protests are a frequent occurrence in front of city hall, which houses the offices of Mr. Gray and D.C. Council members. Yet pro-gun rallies are unusual — taxi drivers, immigrant groups and proponents of social services are usually the ones making their point on the Wilson Building steps.
“We’re trying to hit it at a local level,” Mr. Armstrong said about gun policy. “It hasn’t gotten better with every regulation. It’s gotten worse.”
Earlier this year, the council passed legislation to fix stumbling blocks that made it difficult for residents to meet pre-registration requirements for owning a gun within the city’s borders. City lawmakers supported the measure, despite insisting they are no fans of looser gun laws.
The change put the District more in line with other jurisdictions’ gun laws and with the spirit of the U.S. Supreme Court’s opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller, a landmark 2008 ruling that struck down the city’s long-standing ban on handguns as unconstitutional. The city’s tough approach to guns also has loomed large in the District’s pitch for statehood or a vote in Congress, with lawmakers from other states openly questioning whether the District has taken the best approach to firearm privileges.
The sight of young protesters promoting traditionally conservative and libertarian views at city hall brought new vigor to the issue. Protesters riffed off popular songs by Twisted Sister and the Beastie Boys — “You gotta fight. For your right. To caaaaarrrry!” — to get their message across.
“I really do believe we should be allowed to have our Second Amendment rights,” protester Amanda Haas, 21, said.
Ms. Haas said she is “a single girl who’s living in the city” and should have the right to protect herself with a firearm if, for instance, she is accosted while walking at night from the Metro to her home near Eastern Market.
Many of the protesters told The Washington Times that they lived across the river in Virginia, although some noted that they work in the District.
Mr. Armstrong said almost all of the protesters resided in the Beltway area. Many of them know each other, so they easily were able to organize the rally over the Internet. He described public reaction to their forceful message as “mixed.”
“I think a lot of people are startled to see young people out here,” he said.
But some passers-by were not amused by the spectacle.
“I’m just embarrassed by this,” Malcolm Odell of Georgetown said after he stopped to engage in lively debate with several of the protesters. He said the rally promoted a “fantasy belief” that increased gun ownership makes for a safer America.
“We’re so far behind any civilized country in the world,” he said.
In a recent interview on NewsChannel 8, Mr. Gray said he is proud of the District’s gun laws and renewed his criticism of a billboard in the District that touts formal gun training.
“While we support their right to express their opinions under the First Amendment, the facts are clear that more guns do not equal safer communities,” Mr. Ribeiro said Friday. “States with the lax gun laws and higher gun ownership rates have the highest per capita number of gun-related deaths.”
Danielle Forsythe, of Woodbridge, Va., could not hide her disgust as she walked past the rally, deeming the protesters “idiots.”
“It doesn’t make any sense because so many people die because of guns and people who are careless with them,” she said.