In the wake of a mass shooting that killed five Dallas police officers last week, the city’s mayor and top law enforcement officer are criticizing the state’s permissive gun laws for contributing to the chaos surrounding the incident.
It is legal for firearm owners in Texas, as in much of the nation, to openly display long guns, like rifles or shotguns, as long as they don’t do so in a menacing fashion. Gun activists around the state have made a habit of toting their weapons in public, and the demonstration held in downtown Dallas on Thursday was no exception.
Authorities estimate that between 20 and 30 of the protesters marched with AR-15s and other military-style rifles slung behind their backs. But what may have been intended as an innocuous assertion of their rights in Texas became much more problematic when a gunman opened fire on police officers, leaving law enforcement scrambling to figure out how to respond.
“When you have gunfire going on, you usually go with the person that’s got a gun,” Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings (D) said Sunday in an interview with “Face the Nation” on CBS. “And so our police grabbed some of those individuals, took them to police headquarters, and worked it out and figured out they were not the shooters.”
Dallas police quickly identified a man armed with an assault-style rifle as one of the suspects. And although video evidence quickly revealed that he was not actually involved in the shooting, the fact that he was singled out underscores the difficulties police can face in these situations.
“It’s increasingly challenging when people have AR-15s slung over and shootings occur in a crowd and they begin running and we don’t know if they’re the shooter or not,” Dallas Police Chief David Brown said Monday in a press conference.
The man police called out, later identified as Mark Hughes, said he was able to turn over his rifle to police and clear up the error before he was mistaken for a threat. And while he may not have suffered any disastrous consequences from the mix-up, a Dallas police tweet calling Hughes a suspect remained up for more than 24 hours, leading many people to accuse the department of engaging in character assassination.
Officers also detained two other armed rallygoers, contributing to the initial narrative that the gunman may have not acted alone.
Regardless of the intentions of the open carry crowd, such displays do not actually make scenarios safer for everyone, Brown said.
“There’s been the presumption that a good guy with a gun is the best way to resolve some of these things,” he said. “Well, we don’t know who the good guy is versus who the bad guy is if everybody starts shooting.”
State lawmakers are aware of his concerns, Brown added. While the state legislature recently passed an open carry law allowing licensed gun owners to display handguns in public as well, he suggested that the presence of firearms at protests was worth further discussion.
Open carry supporters have meanwhile claimed that the level of confusion has been overstated.
“[Police were] walking right past people who are open-carrying rifles and it’s not a problem,” C.J. Grisham, founder and president of Open Carry Texas, told The New York Times. “So obviously it’s not that difficult to tell who the good guys and the bad guys are.”
For Rawlings, however, there are some settings in which openly armed civilians only contribute to the potential danger.
“This is the first time — but a very concrete time — that I think a law can hurt citizens, police and not protect them,” he told the Times. “I just want to come back to common sense.”