AUSTIN — When President Obama lands here Friday to give a talk at this year's South by Southwest Interactive festival, he will enter the land of oak-smoked brisket, live music, "thinkfluencers" — and openly brandished firearms.
For the third consecutive year, activists are using the yearly music and culture festival to bring attention to their defense of gun rights by openly carrying guns in public, as is legal in Texas. This year, however, there are a couple of twists: One, the open carry of handguns — as opposed to rifles and shotguns — is legal for the first time. Second, the most powerful and well-guarded man in the world will be in town.
C.J. Grisham of Open Carry Texas, who is leading a previously planned protest of as many as 20 activists in downtown Austin on Friday, said Obama's visit will have no effect on his group's plans.
"The president is an American, just like every one of us is an American," Grisham said. "He's nothing special. Granted, he is the president, but him being there for us doesn't change anything. We're no threat to the president, and the president better not be a threat to us."
Grisham, who said he plans to carry a rifle, said he does not expect any sort of confrontation related to the presidential visit: "The point is to engage with the public, explain to them that you know it's not the guns people need to be afraid of, it's the person, and to show the lighter side and the friendlier side of gun owners."
But the presence of openly brandished firearms in the vicinity of a presidential visit has some on edge — a feeling encouraged by a social media posting earlier this week.
After Grisham noted on his Facebook page earlier this week that Obama's visit would coincide with his open-carry demonstration, a commenter said: "If you get a clear shot, please fire for effect!"
Other pro-gun commenters quickly pointed out that even suggesting a presidential potshot was unwise, and Robert Hoback, a spokesman for the Secret Service, said Thursday that the agency "is aware of this posting and is conducting the appropriate follow-up."
Grisham said he had not heard from either local or federal law enforcement about concerns related to Obama's visit, and he insisted that the protesters intended to fully exercise their legal rights. "We're going to go, and we're going to do our event the way we normally do our event," he said. "We're there peacefully and lawfully to exercise our rights and hand out educational materials and nothing more. That's it. We're not going to be dictated to by any government entity in public to say we can or can't exercise our rights just because some human being decided he wants to take a left down a street we just happen to be on."
But while gun-rights advocates might want to bring their firearms near the president, the Secret Service has invoked its authority under federal law to prevent that from happening. Hoback said in an email that Sections 3056 and 1752 of Title 18 in the U.S. Code give the agency the right to prevent "firearms from entering sites visited by” officials they are protecting, “including those located in open-carry states.”
“Only authorized law enforcement personnel working in conjunction with the Secret Service for a particular event may carry a firearm inside of the protected site,” Hoback said. “Individuals determined to be carrying firearms will not be allowed past a predetermined outer perimeter checkpoint, regardless of whether they possess a ticket to the event.”
It appears likely that the protesters will be away from the presidential perimeter. The Friday protest is expected to move south from the Texas Capitol, north of the Colorado River. Obama will be giving his remarks at a venue just south of the river. Grisham said he expected activists to stay north of the river, though small groups have been encouraged to roam around the downtown area and "go wherever you can go." (South by Southwest has an official no-guns policy, but that applies only to private event spaces.)
Outside the Capitol shortly after noon Friday, the roughly half-dozen protesters were outnumbered by reporters before they started their 12-block march to the river.
Grisham, carrying a holstered 19th-century Colt Army revolver, said he did not intend to approach the perimeter of the Obama event.
"I prefer to stay as far away from President Obama as possible," he said, citing the Jan. 26 shooting of federal land occupier LaVoy Finicum by Oregon State Police after being chased down a highway by state and federal agents.
Austin Police Chief Art Acevedo said Friday that he was confident the protesters would not cause a problem. "We're very used to them here in Austin," he said. "They understand that when they cross a line, they hurt their cause." He also said law enforcement has "a deep appreciation for their First Amendment rights."
The protests — and the Facebook threat — have gotten the attention of gun-control supporters in Texas and elsewhere. Erika Soto Lamb, a spokeswoman for the advocacy group Everytown for Gun Safety, said the open-carry activists underscore the weaknesses in Texas gun laws.
“As they said, they are planning to demonstrate around the festival to reach out to the younger generation,” she said. “But when the law doesn’t require background checks on gun sales, there’s no way to know if the guy carrying a handgun next to you is a political activist, or a cause to duck or cover.”
For law enforcement, the protests are making an already complicated day even more complicated. "You've got South by Southwest ... and then you have a presidential visit and an open-carry protest connected to that visit," Acevedo said. "It's just a perfect storm."
Juliet Eilperin contributed to this report.