'We're not trying to stir up anything': Why some gun owners are carrying weapons in Cleveland

Armed pro-gun advocates who are taking advantage of Ohio's open-carry gun laws while attending the Republican National Convention in Cleveland deny that they pose any kind of threat.

Ohio law allow owners to openly carry firearms while in city during Republican National Convention

Tevor Leis, exercising his Ohio open-carry rights, stands armed in Public Square on July 19, 2016, in Cleveland, during the second day of the Republican National Convention. (John Minchillo/Associated Press)

Sam Kurek, standing with a Glock 31 strapped to his side, was blunt in dismissing fears that armed pro-gun advocates like himself who are taking advantage of Ohio's open-carry gun laws pose any kind of threat while they're at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland.

One of about a dozen people who came armed to a pro-Donald Trump rally at Settlers Landing Park earlier this week, Kurek rejected any concerns that a clash between armed supporters of Trump and armed detractors could have deadly consequences.

"You're thinking that we're going to start lining up and shooting at each other," said Kurek, who travelled to Cleveland from Pennsylvania. "No, that's not going to happen."

'It's a deterrent effect'

"We're not trying to stir up anything. I'm carrying to prevent violence. It's a deterrent effect," he said.

Only a handful of gun owners, including Sam Kurek, decided to take advantage of Ohio's open carry gun laws and strap a firearm to their side at a pro-Trump rally this week. (Mark Gollom/CBC)

If someone was about to shoot him, then, maybe, he would draw his weapon, Kurek said. Otherwise, he and other like-minded pro-gun advocates are not here "to start a war."

"That's the last thing any of us want. That's the last thing our country needs."

Conventions have often been the scene of violent protest, and that concern has been amplified by the tension across the U.S. in the wake of high-profile police shootings of black men, which have led to demonstrations and clashes with police.

Security issues have also been heightened following the shooting of five police officers in Dallas by a sniper, the three Baton Rouge police officers shot to death in an ambush and the recent attack in Nice, where more than 80 people were killed when a man driving a truck barrelled down a crowded street. 

Ohio's gun laws have also added to those security concerns. The state is an "open-carry" state, meaning gun owners are able to carry firearms, except within the security perimeter that surrounds the Republican National Convention venue at the Quicken Loans arena, dubbed "The Q."

Before the convention kicked off this week, there were reports that a number of groups, including the Oath Keepers, Bikers for Trump and the New Black Panthers, were calling on their members to come to the city armed.

Protesters clash in Public Square in Cleveland during the second day of the Republican convention. (Alex Brandon/Associated Press)

This, and the recent shooting deaths of police officers, prompted the head of Cleveland's police union to urge Ohio Gov. John Kasich to suspend open-carry laws for the entire state during the convention and to declare a state of emergency.

It was "irresponsible of those folks — especially right now — to be coming downtown with open-carry [assault rifles] or anything else," Steve Loomis told CNN. Kasich's office said he does not have the power to suspend the laws.

But so far, the number of those walking around the city with weapons strapped to their sides has appeared to be relatively small.

They do show up at various rallies, including Public Square, the designated downtown spot for demonstrations during the convention. 

But for two days in a row, no more than a dozen members of a western Ohio militia have marched into downtown Cleveland carrying semi-automatic rifles, for the purpose they say to provide protection for people during the convention, reported. About the same number of people carrying guns came to the Trump rally.

As for the Oath Keepers, Bikers for Trump and the New Black Panthers, they all issued statements before the convention denying reports that they were asking their members to bring their weapons to Cleveland.

So far, the convention and the city have been free of major violence, police say. There were a few minor skirmishes on Tuesday between rival protest groups at Public Square but the heavy police presence ensured that nothing escalated beyond that. 

"If a group of people come down here and they see a bunch of armed citizens, they're not going to be hostile anymore," said Joel Ameigh, who has been carrying a Smith and Wesson M&P .40 by his side. "They're going to think twice. It's the classic thing that an armed society is a polite society."

Ameigh, from Pennsylvania, said he can understand the natural hesitation that people who aren't used to being around firearms have with people who are armed.

"In today's society, it is a very bold statement to make," he said.

Micah Niziri, exercising his open-carry rights, walks around Public Square in Cleveland. (John Minchillo/Associated Press)

"Aside from being a constitutional right, I decided to carry because a lot of what's going on here recently with shootings in Dallas, with shootings in Baton Rouge — it's just a dangerous time."

Ameigh said he wants to have the ability to protect his family from harm.

"This is for my protection, to make me feel comfortable in public, that's basically it."


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.