By Mitch Borden
What first began as activists, dressed in tactical gear and armed with assault rifles, supporting Odessa businesses that defied coronavirus restrictions has now turned into a fight over Second Amendment rights.
While the state has since eased restrictions on businesses, gun rights activists say they’re returning to the Permian Basin in a few weeks to protest the Ector County Sheriff’s Department. Earlier this month, the department arrested six armed men, who had traveled from across the state to Odessa, to rally behind the illegal reopening of Anytime Fitness and Big Daddy Zane’s, a West Odessa bar.
The owner of Big Daddy Zanes, Gabrielle Ellison, told the Odessa American she reached out to the activist group and said she needed help.
“This was not a protest of their Second Amendment rights,” Ector County Sheriff Mike Griffis told the press the day after the protest. “It was a show of force to ensure this lady could violate the governor’s order.”
On May 4, when the group of protestors first arrived in Odessa, it was illegal for gyms and bars to be open under Gov. Greg Abbott’s emergency order. As it was written, violators faced a $1,000 fine and could spend up to 180 days in jail. But since that day — when Sheriff Griffis and Texas Troopers broke up the demonstration, driving in with an armored vehicle and their weapons drawn, telling protestors to surrender — Gov. Abbott has loosened punishments for violators.
In a press conference after the incident, Griffis said the protestors were arrested because they were illegally carrying firearms on a property adjacent to a bar, which according to Griffis is illegal. The property is also owned by Ellison and under the Texas Alcohol Beverage Commission’s Code that classifies it as part of the bar’s premises.
But the protestors and their advocates disagree with the basis for the arrests. They argue that the protest occurred on private property where it is legal to carry firearms.
Griffis continues to stand by his department’s actions, while advocates for the protestors say the sheriff is misinterpreting the definition of “premises.”
“They were on an alcohol licensed premises,” said Griffis. “If you want to know what ‘premises’ is, look it up,” said Griffis.
Since the arrest, Griffis has become the target of gun rights advocates.
“The bottom line is this sheriff did what he did because he simply doesn’t approve of what these boys were doing,” said David Amad, vice president of Open Carry Texas.
In a nearly 9-minute video posted on Youtube, Amad decries the sheriff’s actions and invites gun rights activists to protest the Big Daddy Zane’s arrests.
Open Carry Texas and Amad weren’t directly involved with the May 4 protest at Big Daddy Zane’s, but the group has surfaced as a vocal opponent of the sheriff’s actions.
“He wanted to make an example out of these boys,” Amad said in the video, which has racked up nearly 2,500 views. “He wanted to show the world if you come to Odessa and stand up for your rights this is how you are going to be treated.”
Amad sees the arrest of the armed protestors on May 4 as an attack on their First and Second Amendment rights, but Griffis disagrees.
The Republican sheriff, who says he’s long been a vocal supporter of Second Amendment rights and in the past has denounced calls for gun reform, has found himself caught between the growing frustrations from gun rights activists and trying to enforce the governor’s orders.
“We’re not here to violate anyone’s Second Amendment rights,” Griffis said after the arrests. “I’ve been saying for years, and people will tell you, all the good people need to arm themselves because all the bad ones already have. I believe that.”
One of the most recent examples of Griffis coming out against gun reform was after a 2019 mass shooting in Odessa, where eight people, including the gunman, died and over 20 were injured.
During a debate among Democratic presidential hopefuls, candidate Beto O’Rourke called for a ban on assault-style weapons, which Griffis vehemently opposed.
“O’Rourkes plan to force good law-abiding citizens to sell the government their ARs and AKs is a dangerous endeavor,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “That is not the answer and he is an idiot. In fact, it will probably create a civil war. I will be right there with my good people forging our way to Washington DC !!”
Since the arrests were made, the sheriff has received multiple death threats, including a voicemail that someone would “shoot up the town.”
Open Carry Texas and Amad are calling for more people to travel across the state to stand up for their right to bear arms. So far, over 150 people on Facebook have said they’re attending the event.
Amad says the protest will be peaceful and assures law enforcement that if anyone breaks the law during the protest they would surrender peacefully.
But he also said if protestors don’t believe they’ve broken the law and are arrested, Sherrif Griffis and his deputies should be prepared.
“This time, I don’t care if he rolls in with the whole 2nd Armored Division I’m not going to surrender to him if I haven’t broken the law,” said Amad.