Trolling for Open Carry at the GOP Convention

A petition garnered tens of thousands of signatures—but how serious was its author?

Jonathan Ernst / Reuters

An online petition to allow firearms to be openly carried at July’s Republican convention quickly garnered 51,000 signatures. Was its pro-gun preaching satire—as those who praised its author’s trolling believe? Or was it a sincere attempt at Second Amendment advocacy?

“Theoretically,” your typical troll “would be trying to accomplish the opposite of what they say they’re trying to accomplish,” said Jim Ryan, the petition’s author. But that’s not exactly what he’s doing: “If Second Amendment advocates had rallied to this cause, and maybe they have … and [made] this happen somehow, that would be absolutely fine with me.”

That’s because while he supports stricter gun control, his petition aimed to provoke gun-rights advocates to follow through on the policies they so ardently preach. It offers an implicit, but provocative, question: If many Republicans support open carry in other public places—and it’s legal in Ohio, where the convention is being held—shouldn’t they support it at their own convention? For Ryan, it’s a no-brainer: “I don’t think they should be immune in their own settings from the policies they want to subject the rest of us to.”

At face value, the week-old petition on advocates allowing Republican convention-goers to be able to carry their guns freely during the Cleveland meeting. Though Ohio is an open-carry state, the Quicken Loans Arena, where the convention will be held, explicitly prohibits firearms and other weapons. The petition’s rhetoric is recognizable to followers of the eternal American debate over guns: Invocations of the Second Amendment, the sanctity of the Constitution, and the threat of the Islamic State are all familiar. It also includes several “nudges” that hint at exaggeration—for example, an emphasis on “HUSSEIN” in a mention of President Obama’s full name might’ve tipped off savvy readers.

“We are all too familiar with the mass carnage that can occur when citizens are denied their basic God-given rights to carry handguns or assault weapons in public,” the petition reads. “EVERY AMERICAN HAS THE RIGHT TO PROTECT AND DEFEND THEIR FAMILY. With this irresponsible and hypocritical act of selecting a ‘gun-free zone’ for the convention, the RNC has placed its members, delegates, candidates and all US citizens in grave danger.” It calls on the Republican National Committee, the National Rifle Association, and the presidential candidates themselves to take action and push for open carry.

Ryan seemed to relish in the ambiguity his petition created, how people couldn’t immediately tell where the author stood on guns and how it demonstrated the blurred lines between satire and reality. “Ideally, it’s a Rorschach test,” he said. “People can sort of see it either way.” He didn’t want to paint a caricature, but rather reflect the language used by those who campaign for these policies every day. He got some rave reviews: One commenter called it “one of the best satirical pieces since ‘A Modest Proposal,’” the seminal Jonathan Swift work that criticizes anti-Irish sentiment in Great Britain.

News organizations didn’t know what to make of the petition, noting its robust public response and murky origins. The author was listed simply as “The Hyperationalist.” Candidates didn’t seem any more comfortable weighing in. Asked for his input, an uncharacteristically cautious Donald Trump said he’d need to examine the “fine print.” John Kasich and Ted Cruz said the Secret Service would be the ultimate decision-makers about convention security. The RNC said it would defer to the agency, too. By Monday, the agency had spoken, describing its authority to “preclude firearms from entering sites visited by our protectees, including those located in open-carry states.”

“Why is that not something they’re offended by?” asked Ryan, a man fond of rhetorical questions. “That the Department of the Treasury, through the Secret Service, is taking away their guns at their own convention?”

And he has some questions for gun-rights supporters uneasy at the thought of a gun-touting convention crowd. He hopes they’ll think, “Why did I have that reaction? Why did I say to myself that’s a terrible idea?” And lastly: “How can I now hear the arguments of other people with a slightly more open mind?”