After two days of turmoil over the killings of black men by police officers in Minnesota and Louisiana, a Black Lives Matter protest on Wednesday night ended in more violence. Unidentified gunmen opened fire on police and protesters, killing 5 officers and wounding 7 others and at least two civilians.
Shortly after the shooting, the Dallas Police Department released a photo of a man it was searching for as a person of interest in connection with the killing. During a press conference, police said the man was carrying an AR-15 rifle and wearing camouflage gear. "We know that rifles were used to injure and kill Dallas officers," said Dallas police chief David Brown.
The man was quickly identified on Twitter as Mark Hughes, the brother of protest organizer Corey Hughes. There was just one problem: Mark Hughes was innocent. Corey told the local CBS-11 station that Mark had turned his weapon in to an officer after the shooting began, and that Mark was at the police station:
Then video emerged of Mark Hughes calmly turning his weapon in to a police officer:
Dallas PD released a statement that Hughes had "turned himself in" hours after this video was taken last night but did not clarify that he was innocent, despite having circulated photos of him as a person of interest:
On Friday morning, after being fully cleared, Hughes spoke to CBS-11. "I can't believe it. The crazy thing is I couldn't get to my vehicle because of the road block and in hindsight 20/20, I could have been shot," he said, adding that as soon as he realized he was a person of interest he flagged down a police officer. He said he was interrogated for 30 minutes by police before being released. "At the end of the day, the system was trying to get me," he said.
Despite Hughes' innocence, the fact that he was at a protest carrying a rifle over his shoulder was startling to many outside the state of Texas.
But openly carrying a long gun or a rifle like an AR-15 is legal in Texas. There isn't even a specific permit required to carry these guns in public. And last year, Texas expanded its open carry laws to include some 925,000 Texans with concealed carry permits for handguns that they're now allowed to openly carry, the New York Times reported in December. Under that new law's notoriously ambiguous language, it's not even clear whether police have the ability to ask people carrying guns in the open for their licenses. Weapons such as the AR-15 have even become a normal sight in protests.
It's easy to see how such a law can further complicate an already-complex situation like the Dallas shooting.
Open carry laws can also exacerbate underlying racial issues when it comes to gun ownership, as the experience of Mark Hughes showed.
Many speculated that, even though he was carrying a gun in accordance with open carry laws, he was targeted by police because he is black.
That double standard in how black people with guns are policed as opposed to white people was highlighted by the death of Philando Castile in Minnesota. Castile was legally carrying a gun when he was pulled over for a traffic stop. In accordance with the law, he informed the officer that he was carrying his legal firearm, before reaching for his wallet–the officer's reaction was to shoot him four times, killing him in his seat as his girlfriend and her 4-year-old daughter looked on.
Although on paper black Americans have the same Second Amendment rights to arms (and in the case of Texas the same open carry rights) as white people, in practice their ownership of guns elicits very different responses from law enforcement, and even from gun ownership advocacy groups like the National Rifle Association.
Moreover, several people on Twitter pointed out that after the Dallas PD circulated his photo as a person of interest, Hughes may have "turned himself in" because he was in danger of being shot by police himself:
As Hughes' innocence became clear last night, people on Twitter demanded that the police department take down their tweet identifying him as a person of interest, calling their move wildly irresponsible. It's still up this morning, even after he's been released: