The Long Walk 

How an open-carry activist found his mission — and why he isn’t letting go.

click to enlarge Jason Spitzer, on the steps of his Chesterfield County house, has been raising eyebrows and making headlines for his open-carry demonstrations in Carytown.

Ash Daniel

Jason Spitzer, on the steps of his Chesterfield County house, has been raising eyebrows and making headlines for his open-carry demonstrations in Carytown.

Jason Spitzer's room is smaller than it appears in the videos he's posted on YouTube. The guns look much larger.

There are 13 laid out on his bed. Each is a tool with a purpose, whether it's range shooting, hunting or protection.

There's one more in his car, a Smith & Wesson .38 Special.

"I keep that in my car all the time," Spitzer says.

For protection?

"For protection, yup."

The suburban Chesterfield County neighborhood in which he grew up and lives appears about as safe as any. But you never know what you'll run into. And he cites the registered sex offender who lives on the street.

Spitzer bought his first firearm at 21, choosing a pump-action shotgun to defend his family. He sold it because the serial number ended in 666, he says: "I'm religious, and I didn't want anything to do with that."

The purchase led to what's become a hobby and a life's mission. Of his small arsenal, the American-made version of the famous Soviet-style AK-47 has become more than a tool. It's a calling card. On most Saturdays for the past few months, the gun has been slung across his shoulder while he walks up and down Cary Street.

The walks started quietly, in the spare time he had while waiting for his then-fiancee to get off work in Carytown. He wandered the sidewalks with his handgun holstered at his side. He later printed up fliers, announcing his intention to promote the right of Americans to carry such guns in public.

Spitzer's had a rough couple of months. The 26-year-old and his fiancee broke up, saddling him with debt. He was fired from one job, and has endured taunting at his main gig as a welder at a steel mill.

"There's nothing for me to gain but all for me to lose," he says.

So far, Spitzer has gained mostly jeers. A Fourth of July demonstration walk brings out only one other person. But six other people and seven other guns join the march July 19, one of the largest yet.

Legality dominates the discussion. They know all eyes are on them. The group stops to wait at crosswalks even when cars aren't coming. They smile at passersby, purchase lemonade and pop into 7-Eleven for a snack.

While they mill around outside the store next to the animal-adoption group Friends United with the Richmond Shelter, a volunteer asks them to move along. This is the only direct confrontation they face on their walk.

"I think it's ridiculous," volunteer Pam Kemp says after they move a few feet away. "It's unnecessary and it's threatening. When you look at the biggest cause of death in the U.S. — heart disease — they should take up weapons against cheeseburgers."

Crossing the street, open-carry advocate Reggie Bowles says such reactions haven't been uncommon. He says he responds that when a drunk driver hits someone, the car doesn't get arrested. Guns are tools, and it's all about the person using them.

"I don't want people to be uncomfortable," he says.

What he doesn't mention during this walk is that Bowles is wearing a bullet-proof vest while carrying his rifle. An anti-gun violence activist known as @MadMomMadMom on Twitter notes this later when posting a photo of him she took while surreptitiously passing by. Bowles says it's for his own safety. Anti-gun violence activists say the motivations of anyone carrying a large rifle around a crowded shopping area are suspect.

"That is the core concern," says Gena Reeder, Virginia chapter president of the national group Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. "You've got people openly carrying assault-style weapons knowing that in Virginia they could have purchased those weapons in a private sale outside of the background check system."

Spitzer won't speak for his entire group, but says all his firearms have been purchased with proper procedures and background checks followed. He insists that the laws are a protection against the wrong people ending up with firearms.

The Richmond Police Department has little to say about the marchers.

"We are aware of the open-carry folks," spokesman Gene Lepley writes in an email. "We have checked on them each time. No issues. They are not breaking any laws."

He also says the department has fielded no complaints from that area about the walkers on their four demonstration days in the last month.

Spitzer has dubbed his next advertised open-carry walk, scheduled for Aug. 2, as a "2nd Amendment Freedom Walk on the 2nd."

"I believe I have that entire Saturday free," he writes on the event's Facebook page. "So we can walk as long as anyone wants to walk."

The same likely applies to every Saturday after that in the foreseeable future, Spitzer says. He'll continue the walks until the sight of guns — any type of guns — becomes normalized.

"The ignorance of that statement is just astounding to me," Reeder says. "We've got children taught to duck or hide in a closest when they see an armed person come into their school. We don't need to normalize. There was a picture that showed up on Twitter that just caught my breath."

Twitter user MadMomMadMom took the photo during the July 19 walk. It shows Spitzer strolling within a few feet of a young boy, eyes locked on Spitzer's AK-47.

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