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Gun rights rally to break century-long Alamo tradition

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FILE: Aug. 1, 2013: Tourists make a late evening visit to the Alamo, in San Antonio. The Texas General Land Office, which took control of the Alamo in 2011, approved a gun rights rally for Saturday, Oct. 19, 2013, breaking with tradition that had kept demonstrations off the hallowed ground. (AP)

This is how to make another gun rally in gun-friendly Texas stand out: Tell everybody to bring their rifles and shotguns to the Alamo, the state’s most popular attraction, which sits downtown in the country’s seventh-largest city. And be sure to invite the state’s gun-friendliest politician, who also happens to hold the keys to the historic site.

When the organizers of “Come and Take It San Antonio!” made plans for a display of long guns today, this setting seemed ideal but the event is now drawing attention for breaking a century-long tradition against public demonstrations at the shrine of Texas liberty, where Col. William Travis and 200 Texas defenders famously died in a siege with the Mexican army in 1836. Such public displays have usually been relegated to an adjacent plaza.

Some are asking whether a pro-gun group has gone too far in extolling firearms rights, a feat considered near impossible in Texas. And whether a politician may have been too willing to accommodate them.

“We certainly consider the Alamo our family cemetery,” said Lee Spencer White, president of the Alamo Defenders’ Descendants Association. “Our guys died there and we take it very seriously.”

Inside the weathered stone mission church where the Texans made their last stand, “You instantly become reverent,” she said. “You feel the sacrifice and the emotions of those who died there. You can’t help but leave feeling moved and changed forever.”

But rally organizers say the site fits their cause, protesting a San Antonio local ordinance they say impinges on firearms rights.

“We’re doing this to show that we’re not going to back down,” said Victoria Montgomery, a spokeswoman for Open Carry Texas, one of the groups behind the event.

The gun groups organized the rally after a confrontation with San Antonio police two months ago. Police threatened to arrest several activists who were carrying their rifles outside a Starbucks.

Texas law prohibits open carrying of handguns but has no similar restriction for long guns. The Texas penal code, however, does bar display of a “deadly weapon in a public place in a manner calculated to alarm.” A San Antonio ordinance restricts firearms in public parks or at political rallies.

“We are going to fight for our rights, and it’s not OK for police to just say whatever they want and make up the rules as they go along,” said Montgomery.

In late September, the gun rights groups got permission to use the Alamo from the Texas Land Commission.

The four-acre historical site downtown includes the small mission church, whose foundation was laid by the Spanish in 1744, other surviving buildings and artifacts including Davy Crockett’s desk. About 2.5 million people visit every year.

From 1905 to 2011, the Daughters of the Republic of Texas organization kept the church sacrosanct from events deemed inappropriate. But the state took control after allegations of mismanagement by the Daughters. The decision on the long gun protest rested with Texas Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson, who as a legislator was known for carrying a pistol in his boot. The Marine veteran is running for lieutenant governor largely on a single-barrel platform of gun rights.

Patterson acknowledged his office had not developed rules on use of the mission. But he said he doesn’t think the restrictions should be extensive.

“Citizens who want to gather and exercise their First Amendment rights, who behave in a lawful manner, I’m not sure we have the lawful authority to say no, even if we wanted to,” he said Wednesday.

As for the long gun rally, Patterson, who as a senator wrote the state’s concealed handgun law, says he plans to explain to San Antonio city attorney afterward that the city’s ordinance is unconstitutional.

San Antonio officials disagree but say they anticipate no problems Saturday. “We are expecting it to be a peaceful gathering and within the limits of the law,” Police Chief William McManus said in an emailed statement.

Not all Alamo devotees object to the gun extravaganza. Stephen Hardin, a professor of history at McMurry University in Abilene, who has written extensively on the Alamo and spoke recently at a symposium sponsored by Patterson’s office, said the site is a natural rallying place.

“Free speech was one of the rights the defenders fought and died for,” Hardin wrote in an email. “Can you think of a better place for Texans to exercise their rights?”

But White, a descendant of George C. Jennings, who manned a cannon in the siege against Mexican General Santa Anna’s forces, sees this as an ominous step.

“You’re setting a precedent here,” she said. “Today it’s a gun rally. What is it going to be next month, next year?”