Gehrke: Even if you like guns, Utah Gun Exchange’s tactics against March for Our Lives is a poor strategy

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Bryan Melchior, and Sam Robinson owners of Utah Gun Exchange, Friday, March 23, 2018.

Every responsible gun owner — and there are millions of them in this country — knows that owning a firearm is a serious responsibility, so exercising that Second Amendment right is not to be taken lightly.

Neither is exercising a First Amendment right to assemble and protest.

Both points are evidently lost on the owners of the Utah Gun Exchange, who seem to care little about exercising either right in a sensible manner.

The Utah Gun Exchange, if you are unfamiliar, is an online advertising portal for people who want to buy or sale, say, an AR-15 with a bump stock or a high-powered sniper rifle, without the headaches of a background check or waiting period. As the Utah School Safety Commission recently noted, a survey of incarcerated criminals in 13 states found just 13 percent got their guns from a licensed dealer.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Robert Gehrke writes that the Utah Gun Exchange’s tactics against March for Our Lives is a poor strategy in his latest column.

As my colleague Taylor Anderson reported this week, the Utah Gun Exchange has taken to following the survivors of the Parkland, Fla., shooting around the country in their armored pretend Army vehicle to make the pro-gun case at various March for Our Lives events.

It has been provocative, to be sure. In New York, the owner of the vehicle, Bryan Melchior, was arrested because the turret-mounted gun on top of their black vehicle wasn’t clearly a replica, as required by city ordinance.

On Wednesday, the Larry H. Miller Group’s Megaplex Theatres declined to host a town hall planned in Utah this Saturday, concerned about a potential protest.

It was an unfortunate (and frankly cowardly) decision by the Miller Group, but also understandable, in light of the highly charged atmosphere, the inflammatory nature of the issue, and people from the Utah Gun Exchange who are insistent on being a lightning rod in those dangerous conditions.

The First Amendment absolutely guarantees the right of the Utah Gun Exchange folks to speak out on the polarizing gun issue, no question. But just because you CAN say something, doesn’t mean that you should.

For example, Belchior probably would have been well-advised not to say: “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.”

Yes. Being a gun owner is exactly like being a slave.

Of course, the Utah Gun Exchange has a right to try to organize a protest to the Florida teens pushing for new gun restrictions. But their tactics — seemingly meant to intimidate and instigate — are doing more harm than good to their cause.

That’s not just my opinion.

Charles Hardy is policy director of Gun Owners of Utah, which bills itself as “Utah’s uncompromising” gun owners’ network. These guys have been on the frontlines of Utah’s gun debate for decades and they don’t mess around.

Hardy, for example, believes the Parkland students at the core of March for Our Lives are “well-meaning but misguided young people” co-opted by anti-gun advocates. But he also recognizes gun owners have won their battles in Utah — far more often than they have lost — by organizing and educating, not by intimidating.

“If they’re trying to intimidate or shout people down or grab someone else’s 15 minutes of limelight, it’s not what we’re supposed to do. Quite the contrary,” he said. “I don’t think it’s a good idea to encourage folks of passion and disparate views to show up at the same place at the same time to yell at each other. … I think they’re horribly misguided.”

State Sen. Todd Weiler, R-Woods Cross, got a 93 percent rating from the National Rifle Association when he was up for re-election in 2016 — he’s no softy on gun rights.

“I understand that organizations are very concerned that their Second Amendment rights are at risk,” he said. “But this type of advocacy is not helpful, and is probably counterproductive.”

State Rep. Lee Perry, R-Perry, sponsored gun advocates “Constitutional Carry” bill recently, which sought to give non-restricted adults the right to carry a concealed firearm without a permit. He also is a lieutenant in the Utah Highway Patrol.

“I’m going to stand up for my rights under the Second Amendment,” Perry told me. “I’m willing to have a discussion about gun laws. I’m not afraid of that. But I’m not the kind to show up and do a reverse protest. … To me, that’s animosity and I don’t see anything productive out of it.”

And then there is Clark Aposhian, chairman of the Utah Shooting Sports Council and probably the most noted gun advocate in Utah’s Capitol. He says he doesn’t see anything antagonistic in the Utah Gun Exchange’s actions and he also plans to attend the March for Our Lives event to offer a pro-gun viewpoint.

But if people want to try to solve the issue of gun violence, he said, “it’s going to have to be done out of the limelight. It has to involve trust. … Otherwise it’ll just be a constant clash.”

“I think the big vehicle with the big gun on top and the t-shirts are to get attention,” he said.

The Utah Gun Exchange certainly got attention. National media has picked up on their antics and now they are a focal point of Saturday’s event. Like any business, the Utah Gun Exchange thrives on that free publicity, so their stunt has probably paid off.

It has come, however, at the expense of Utah’s reputation: They are an embarrassment to the state and to the reputation of nearly one-third of Utahns who own firearms and exercise their rights responsibly.

They got their attention, to be sure, like a spoiled brat throwing a tantrum. And on Saturday, at the March for Our Lives event, wherever it is held, we’re likely to once again see children acting out, while these Florida teenagers worried for their safety are speaking up.