Some two dozen men and women from the gun rights group Open Carry Texas, armed with rifles and shotguns, sat outside a Dallas-area restaurant earlier this month waiting for four women—members of Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, a small gun control advocacy organization—to emerge from lunch at the Blue Mesa Grill. The group posed for photos in the strip mall parking lot, brandishing their weapons and the American flag. After two hours, they packed up their protest and headed to Hooters.

“It was very unsettling. It was very disturbing,” one of the moms explained two days later in a televised interview. The groups’ founder, Shannon Watts, said patrons were “terrified by what appeared to be an armed ambush.” The hashtag #gunbullies was born.

The incident is the latest headline-grabbing showdown involving open carry activists, who want the unconcealed carrying of firearms to be as normal as holding a cell phone. In groups armed with rifles and Gadsden flags, they’ve demonstrated at the site ofPresident Kennedy’s assassination. They walk alone through state capitol buildings, and Home Depots, baiting police officers and frightening workers and ordinary citizens.

The brazen antics of this mainly libertarian coalition—think of them as the tea partiers of the gun rights’ movement—have had the unlikely effect of placing gun rights groups, law enforcement officials, and control advocates aligned in opposition. Legally, open carry activists are within their rights, protected, as they’re quick to remind their challengers, by the first and second amendment. But when does this type of protest become a menace, to the public’s safety and to the group’s own message of freedom?

Kory Watkins, who organized the armed assembly outside the Texas restaurant, accuses the women of manufacturing fear to garner sympathy. “For them to say they were threatened is a lie. They’re trying to make us look like bullies.” Watkins told The Daily Beast. He says that members of Moms Demand Action confronted 1,200 armed demonstrators at an event at the Alamo last month, waving brooms and saying they were there to clean up the trash. “I’m confused as to why they’re suddenly scared,” he says.

Shannon Watts of Moms Demand Action denies Watkins’ claim, calling it “an outright falsehood.” According to Watts, the moms staged a counter event, one mile away from the Alamo protest. Families with kids were photographed making crafts, playing games, and eating lunch.

Watts says her group thinks most gun groups and owners are responsible. But they aren’t speaking up and so, she says, “irresponsible, dangerous people,” have filled the vacuum.

The Dallas flare-up comes at a time of heightened awareness of mass shootings and sensitivity of what can be the devastating effects of guns. Deadly mass shootings at the Navy Yard in September; at a Newtown, Connecticut elementary school last December; and at a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado in the summer of 2012 still burn fresh in the American psyche. Moms Demand Action was, in fact, formed in the wake of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, which left 28 people dead, including 20 children. Afterward, President Obama urged Congress to pass gun control measures at the Newtown memorial. Months passed, public interest and outrage waned, and eventually a gun control measure failed in the Senate.

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