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White House Backs Right to Bear Arms, Even Outside Obama Events, if State Laws Allow

A man with an AR-15 semiautomatic assault rifle joins protesters outside an event in Phoenix where President Obama was discussing health-care reform.
A man with an AR-15 semiautomatic assault rifle joins protesters outside an event in Phoenix where President Obama was discussing health-care reform. (By Jack Kurtz -- Associated Press)
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By Alexi Mostrous
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Armed men seen mixing with protesters outside recent events held by President Obama acted within the law, the White House said Tuesday, attempting to allay fears of a security threat.

Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said people are entitled to carry weapons outside such events if local laws allow it. "There are laws that govern firearms that are done state or locally," he said. "Those laws don't change when the president comes to your state or locality."

Anti-gun campaigners disagreed with Gibbs's comments, voicing fears that volatile debates over health-care reform are more likely to turn violent if gun control is not enforced.

"What Gibbs said is wrong," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "Individuals carrying loaded weapons at these events require constant attention from police and Secret Service officers. It's crazy to bring a gun to these events. It endangers everybody."

The past week has seen a spate of men carrying firearms while milling outside meetings Obama has held to defend his health-care reform effort. On Monday, a man with an AR-15 semiautomatic assault rifle strapped to his shoulder was outside a veterans' event in Phoenix. He was one of a dozen men who reportedly had guns outside the forum.

Phoenix police made no arrests, saying Arizona law allows weapons to be carried in the open.

Last week, a man with a gun strapped to his leg held a sign outside an Obama town hall meeting in Portsmouth, N.H., that read: "It's time to water the tree of liberty."

Before the same meeting, Richard Terry Young, a New Hampshire resident, was arrested by the Secret Service for allegedly having a loaded, unlicensed gun in his car. Young was stopped inside the school where Obama held the forum, having reportedly sneaked past a security perimeter.

Ed Donovan, a spokesman for the Secret Service, said incidents of firearms being carried outside presidential events are a "relatively new phenomenon." But he said the president's safety is not being jeopardized.

"We're well aware of the subjects that are showing up at these events with firearms," he said. "We work closely with local law enforcement to make sure that their very strict laws on gun permits are administered. These people weren't ticketed for events and wouldn't have been allowed inside and weren't in a position outside to offer a threat." The immediate area occupied by Obama on such trips is considered a federal site where weapons are not permitted, Donovan said.

Lawmakers holding tense town hall debates about health-care reform also have seen armed constituents. The staff of some, including Rep. Stephen I. Cohen (D-Tenn.), have taken precautions to guard against guns being brought into gatherings.

"We asked everyone with firearms to check them with the sheriff before we began the meeting," said Marilyn Dillihay, Cohen's chief of staff, describing an Aug. 8 town hall debate in Memphis. "We've never done that before." The decision was made because the number of people at the event and the subject of the debate created a "potentially a volatile situation," she said.


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