From Texas to New York to Utah, students continue to hold rallies and town halls calling for new gun regulations after repeated mass shootings. It is a political movement sparked by the massacre of 17 people at a Florida high school in February.
Now, an owner of a Utah online gun marketplace has taken the company’s military-style armored vehicle on the road, following these students and holding counter-rallies. That includes urging its members to attend a March for Our Lives town hall in Salt Lake County this weekend, which is led by some of the Parkland, Fla., victims.
Bryan Melchior, a co-owner of the Utah Gun Exchange, is now on the Gulf Coast in Florida, staging to attend town halls organized by the Parkland teenagers. So far the pro-gun group at these events has been limited to Melchior and his seven traveling companions, though they urge supporters to attend any event intended to push for new gun restrictions.
Their road trip hasn’t exactly been incident free.
Police stopped Melchior and the group in New York and Chicago while an officer in Georgia just wanted to check out the military-style armored vehicle. It is usually topped with a replica machine gun that is propane-powered so it sounds like the real thing, but doesn’t shoot bullets.
The vehicle, essentially a rolling armored billboard, is a familiar sight at the Utah Capitol and has become the trademark of the Utah Gun Exchange.
Melchior believes his encounters with police in New York and Chicago have been a violation of his civil rights.
“The hostile environment created toward gun advocates in the Northeast is not unlike the hostile environments a black man would have experienced in the South hundreds of years ago,” he said Tuesday.
The company posted a video of an interaction between dozens of New York City police officers and attorneys who said the replica Browning machine gun violated a city ordinance around fake guns. While the gun had a pride flag attached to its barrel, it didn’t have other markings that are required to distinguish between real guns from fakes, police said in the video.
Melchior was arrested “in a very technical sense,” one NYPD official said in the video, which was taken during an LGBTQ Pride parade late last month.
The Georgia trooper was far friendlier. In another video taken by someone in Melchior’s entourage, the trooper said he saw Melchior drive past in the armored vehicle — missing the replica machine gun at that point but still with Utah Gun Exchange logos on the side — and thought “I gotta talk to this guy.”
The Georgia officer had a tattoo that appears to be the logo of a paramilitary organization called The Three Percenters, which bills itself as a national defense organization. He ended up signing the truck and left with a T-shirt for the gun exchange.
In Melchior’s view, it showed a divide among members of law enforcement.
“We received different treatment under the law based on who we encountered,” Melchior said. “That’s problematic.”
Elizabeth Love, one of the executive organizers of March for Our Lives SLC, recalled the large march on March 24, when thousands of students and other residents called for gun control. Their event led to the Capitol, where pro-gun marchers had convened, organized by the Utah Gun Exchange.
“It was frustrating because there were a lot of kids, a lot of teenagers. Then there were all of these adult men who had guns. They had an armored vehicle with a gun mounted on it,” Love said. “We were protesting not being able to feel safe in school because of guns. It felt insensitive.”
The students are putting on events that include conversations about the number of rounds guns can carry at a time, funding for violence research, requiring background checks for all gun purchases and more.
Melchior, who bought the Utah Gun Exchange in March 2017 and now plans to take it nationwide, says he makes no apologies for attending these March for Our Lives events.
“People say is it insensitive that you show up at these events?” Melchior said. “What’s insensitive is the ability to go out there and promote, send this message that would seek to deprive people of their civil rights.”
Cameron Kasky, a survivor of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting, said he talked with members of the Utah Gun Exchange at the Chicago event.
“They were telling my friends who had lost family members to gun violence how great guns were,” said Kasky, who will be in Utah on Saturday. “My personal belief which is my personal belief and something I’m entitled to is it’s not very tasteful to bring a tank to a march for peace.”
On Saturday, the Salt Lake City chapter of March for Our Lives planned to hold a rally and town hall with survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting. Melchior’s group encouraged supporters to attend the rally and town hall.
March for Our Lives rescheduled its event, due to a traveling conflict, and now are planning a town hall at Megaplex Theatres in South Jordan at 6 p.m. Melchior is still encouraging supporters to be there.
“If they think the best thing to do for their brand and image is to follow a group of teenagers whose schools were shot up,” Love said, “then that’s their decision.”