BY MIROSLAV TOMOSKI
The students at the University of Cincinnati (UC) are no strangers to violence. In recent years they have experienced a number of incidents including the use of firearms and other weapons on or around their campus. So when a well-known Second Amendment activist showed up at their doorstep on Inauguration Day, they began to fear for their safety.
“I’m actually not a gun guy, I’m a rights guy.” Says Jeffry Smith, a firearms instructor and gun rights activist who has taken to walking around campus with his guns in plain sight. Ohio’s open carry laws allow him to carry his licensed firearms freely. While he is not a student at UC, Smith has chosen to become a walking advertisement for gun rights on campus. “The reason I was wearing firearms on campus was to spark conversations about firearms on campus and campus carry.”
As might be expected, Smith is also a Trump supporter and was first encountered by students at a rally on Inauguration Day. His presence at the rally, dressed in full Trump regalia, sparked what would become the story of a crazed Trump supporter menacing students with his guns and inviting his friends to do the same.
“What I was there for [on Inauguration Day] was to represent my opposition to the socialists there, as I have done at the other socialist rallies, where I have not been openly armed.” He says, pointing out that he was wearing his Trump hat and sweatshirt.
This was the third rally he had attended in Cincinnati and the first that he went to openly armed. While the image of an armed Trump supporter may raise more than a few eyebrows at an anti-Trump rally, Smith insists that he had come to the event with two distinct purposes.
“I was making two points,” He says, “one is that I oppose and feel like the socialists, as they’ve presented themselves, need to be kept an eye on.” Referring to the organizers of the event, a group called Socialist Alternative.
“I opposed them by my presence and wearing Trump paraphernalia. But also I wanted to exercise the right to openly carry on campus so as to draw attention from and conversation with people both for and against firearms – whether opened or concealed.”
In the wake of two fatal shootings around the campus, one involving campus police, many students and faculty are wary of welcoming firearms regardless of the purpose. Since Jeffry Smith’s arrival, a petition letter distributed by faculty and delivered to UC Administration on January 27th, has made this opposition clear.
“The presence of Mr. Smith and his associates has caused significant distress to students, staff, and faculty at UC who feel menaced and harassed by armed political activists on campus.” The letter states, citing recent school shootings across the country as a cause for concern. “This state of affairs is intolerable and cannot be allowed to continue. Mr. Smith’s actions are creating a toxic work and learning environment.”
The letter goes on to describe incidents of intimidation by Smith and other activists who have joined him on campus. It mentions interactions in which Smith reportedly bragged about his firearms and encouraged students to bring their own guns to school.
Another concern of the faculty is a possible violation of the Gun-Free School Zones Act, which prohibits unauthorized individuals from carrying a firearm within 1,000ft of a K-12 school.
In this case, Smith has been seen walking past the nearby Hughes high school, as one student recorded on his way to class on Wednesday, January 25th.
The interaction – not shown in the video – was described to TPZ by Smith and the student who asked to remain anonymous out of concern for his safety.
“He said, ‘do you want to follow us around with a camera?’ I said, ‘no I don’t’ and proceeded to the safety phone behind him.” The student recalls. “I called 911 first, then UC police. 911 didn’t say they would send a cop, they just said they’d look into it. UC police didn’t show up either.”
Smith admits to have walked onto campus from around Hughes high school on his way to the University’s student centre. But he remembers the interaction differently, insisting that he encouraged the student to call the police and that he was not in violation of any laws as his weapons – two Glock pistols and a Smith and Wesson revolver seen in the video – were licensed.
In fact, he believes that anti-Trump protesters are the ones who have been displaying hostility. “There is a big disconnect between some of the signage and some of the feelings of the people there, at least as it’s verbally expressed.” He says of the rallies he’s attended.
“My feeling is that they [the protesters] are creating hate, not reflecting it.” He says, “I see signs that say ‘Love Trumps Hate’, but then somebody sees my Trump hat downtown at Fountain Square and says, ‘fuck you.’”
Intending to file a lawsuit, Smith says that the claims of the faculty and students are, “libelous and defamatory,” He maintains that the people who oppose his activism don’t necessarily understand what he is trying to do.
“The words are accurate, but the context isn’t.” He says, claiming that when he approaches students with a gun strapped to his chest, he doesn’t mean to be intimidating.
“I could care less about bragging about what my gun can do.” He says, “I told one student that the magazine in my PS-90 had 50 rounds, but that was because he was particularly interested in it.”
Indeed, not all students have come out in opposition to Smith. Some have shown a genuine interest in his cause. Among them are the Young Americans for Liberty, a libertarian student advocacy group, who met with Smith on campus earlier this month where he offered to help them promote the right to carry on campus.
There are currently eight states that allow students to carry firearms on campus: Texas, Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, Oregon, Utah, and Wisconsin. Another 24 states have allowed colleges to decide for themselves. As UC has decided to ban students from carrying firearms on campus, Smith sees his role as one that helps to raise awareness in a way in which students are prohibited from doing.
Still, many on campus disagree and see a man who approaches them with a gun as a threat regardless of his intentions. Especially when he is also armed with opposing political views.
“Given his history of doing this kind of thing, he comes across as an obsessive vigilante who has granted himself the right to intimidate political dissidents.” The student in the video said, noting that the people Smith approaches are required by UC administration to be unarmed, “He doesn’t open carry to intimidate other people with guns.”
“Students are not allowed to carry weapons so it’s completely backwards,” Another student agrees, fearing that if anything were to happen, “we’re not in a position to defend ourselves at all.”
For gun activists, this could be considered a minor victory, as their presence at UC does appear to have caused students to consider the administration’s policy on firearms. However, the overwhelming sentiment on campus seems to be one of fear rather than enthusiasm.
“To the students who are afraid, I understand they may be afraid” Smith says, while encouraging those around campus to speak with him. “The only way I could dispel the fear of those students who are afraid is by talking to them.”
He believes that the choice of whether to be armed or not ought to be left to the students, but for some Smith’s presence is the only reason they would consider carrying a gun.
“As far as it concerns him being on campus, yes [I would feel more comfortable if I were allowed to carry],” one student reluctantly claimed, “But in general, I would not feel safe if all students could open carry.”
Many would prefer that the police handled issues of safety rather than reverting to a ‘Wild West scenario’ in which everyone could be a potential threat. But, both the city and campus police departments have proven to be unresponsive according to students and staff.
“One of the terrible things is that UC police were hanging up on students when they called in” one student observed, “they had not informed students until last night [Jan 25th] that this was happening so people thinking that they were reporting this incident for the first time were being hung up on.”
This frustration with authorities has also been reflected in the faculty petition, which referred to the killing of Samuel Dubose by UC Police after being pulled over on July 19, 2015 for a traffic violation.
“[A] UCPD officer murdered Samuel DuBose, an unarmed black man,” the petition states, “because he felt “threatened.” Meanwhile, heavily armed white men are allowed to roam campus freely, intimidating students, faculty, and staff. This double standard is unacceptable.”
On the other hand, Smith says the police have not responded because he has not violated any laws. He has also called the University of Cincinnati Dispatch Center to inform them that he would be on campus.
“At each event that I do I give notice to the authorities ahead of time, well ahead of time in some cases. So they know that there’s going to be a group of armed people coming and I give notice to the media.”
In any case, he doesn’t believe the police to be the most effective when it comes to personal protection. “There’s a saying that when seconds count, the police are minutes away.”
He insists that a person ought to be able to choose his or her own form of protection and adds that, “the police, by law, are not responsible for your safety,” citing Warren v. District of Columbia, a 1981 Supreme Court decision, which ruled that the police do not have a constitutional duty to protect citizens.
Instead, Smith would like to see more action on the part of gun groups and government to promote self-defense.
“I’m certainly not suggesting that a firearm is the solution to every problem – because it’s not.” He says. At the same time, when it comes to campuses around the country, he doesn’t believe an armed campus is any less safe.
“I don’t believe it is detrimental to campus safety. And I believe that is apparent in the campuses across the United States where public college campus carry is not optional for the university.”
Among the states which allow firearms on campus, relatively few university campuses have experienced gun violence. Oregon has had one incident in which a gunman killed eight students and one teacher at Umpqua Community College in 2015. But other incidents have involved shootings at K-12 schools in campus carry states and university campuses in states where campus carry is banned. While a recent study out of Johns Hopkins University’s Bloomberg School of Public Health found that allowing students to carry firearms on campus does not increase the safety of students and could instead make those schools more dangerous.
For now, Smith has vowed to continue his armed march for gun rights, though he doesn’t know when he will return to UC.
UC and Cincinnati Police did not respond to a request for comment.