Rallies and protests that began earlier this year have continued taking place in Nevada’s capital city since the election, and some citizens continue to show up carrying firearms. But what is the legality of these actions? Where do well-established open and concealed carry rights give way to legally questionable militia activity and intimidation?
In October, This Is Reno published a story about the increasing prevalence of armed militia groups in the state following the release of a report done in collaboration between national nonprofit Political Research Associates and local progressive groups Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada and Indivisible Northern Nevada.
The report argues that the activities of armed militia in Nevada are not protected by the law and the state has the power to stop militia gatherings at public protests, and pretty much anywhere else people congregate. Both the Nevada Constitution and Nevada Revised Statutes contain provisions that corroborate the claim.
The report also singles out one person as among the most prominent militia members in Nevada. Corey Lequieu is associated with the Three Percent Militia—a group whose name stems from the often repeated, though false, claim that only 3% of the American colonists took up arms against the British during the American Revolution.
Lequieu was sentenced in 2016 to 2.5 years in federal prison for his role in the 41-day armed occupation at the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in Oregon. As a felon, Lequieu is not legally allowed to carry a firearm; however, he often shows up to rallies with what appears to be a pistol on his hip. According to a 2012 Nevada Supreme Court decision, felons are prohibited from possessing any firearm “loaded or unloaded, operable or inoperable.”
However, law enforcement officers who’ve been asked by reporters about Lequieu’s weapon have stated that not only is it inoperable, it’s also not a firearm. They say what appears to be a semi-automatic handgun worn on his right hip is in fact a BB gun, and an inoperable one at that.
In light of the fact firearms continue to be commonplace during events on the capitol campus, This Is Reno asked Carson City Sheriff Kenneth Furlong for his perspectives on both the events and the guns that are so often present during them. One firearm was accidentally discharged by a Black Lives Matter protester who was hit with a criminal charge after the incident.
Firearms at protests
“I share the concerns, and [Lequieu] has been pulled aside on several occasions to make sure that he is not violating his probation,” Furlong said of Lequieu. “It’s a BB gun. In fact, this weekend, I directed he be pulled aside again. I wanted the pistol removed from his holster, and I wanted it inspected to make sure that he’s not carrying a gun.”
Under Nevada law, a “firearm” includes any device designed to be used as a weapon from which a projectile is expelled through the barrel by the force of any explosion or other form of combustion. So, if a BB or pellet is shot by the force of compressed air only, then, technically, it’s not a firearm.
But it is also illegal in Nevada for felons to wear or even own body armor. Lequieu often shows up to protests and rallies wearing what appears to be body armor, but Furlong said that is not the case.
“We don’t have any indication that he’s actually wearing body armor,” he said. “He’s wearing an outer vest and what looks to be a body-worn camera. Anybody can film anything, so I’m not concerned about that.”
Furlong said officers have been pulling people aside to speak with them concerning the “manners in which they carry their weapons and whether or not they are permitted to carry their weapons” for quite some time now. And since March, they’ve taken issue with the ways in which some people have.
One person, who refers to themselves as Cowboy Barbie, has often showed up with what appears to be a rifle modified to serve as a flagpole. Furlong said the rifle is a replica, but that Cowboy Barbie was told the behavior was nonetheless unacceptable to law enforcement because the replica rifle was being waved about.
“So, we have pulled several gun-toters aside and cautioned them to be in compliance with state law,” Furlong said.
This Is Reno reached out to the Nevada Attorney General’s office seeking a response to the legality of militias, in general, and of felons carrying prop weapons. Rather than respond to questions, the AG office’s spokesperson suggested This Is Reno to file a formal complaint against individuals for possible investigation.
Militia at protests
During a Black Lives Matter protest in July, one of the organizers stepped away from the street-side rally and walked through the capitol campus carrying a sign and a bouquet of flowers. She made her way to the police memorial. There, she laid the flowers and the sign at the base of the memorial. To get to it, she had to walk through a group of about half dozen militia members who attempted to question her about what she was doing. She ignored them.
The sign she placed at the memorial said, “Rest in peace, Sgt. Craig Johnson … no more murder,” in honor of the Tulsa police sergeant who was gunned down in late June while performing a traffic stop.
As she walked away Lequieu stepped up to the memorial, removed her sign, posed for a photo with it and then tore it up. He left the flowers. A legislative police officer stood silently, staring at the memorial, engaging with neither Lequieu nor the BLM organizer.
The militia members continued to hover around the memorial throughout the duration of the protest. Asked their aim in doing so, they said they were standing guard over it to protect it from anyone who would desecrate it or try to tear it down. For months, they continued on occasion to do so—sometimes by day, sometimes by night.
NRS 197.120 includes a provision on “Crimes By and Against the Executive Power of the State.” It provides that a person who impersonates “any public officer … or who shall willfully exercise any of the functions or perform any of the duties of such officer,” but is not qualified as one, is guilty of a misdemeanor crime.
“They’re not,” Furlong said of the armed people who sometimes congregate at the capitol campus memorials.
“This is information I’ve addressed with the BLM folks as well as others,” he added. “Nobody outside of legitimate law enforcement agencies—the sheriff’s office, capitol police, legislative police and so on—has been engaged in any of the operations that we have directed since [protests began in] March. We are aware that a large group of people felt a need to watch over the memorial. They were never requested to do so. They are not acting in our capacity and, in fact, at a point have been warned that their stature out there can be misrepresented. And they’ve been given appropriate warnings about their activities.”
Furlong said he does not mind people going to the capitol and saying they’re watching over the memorials, but there have not been any threats of vandalism or destruction of them.
“In fact, at the height, if you will, the BLM group went over as a whole and placed flowers at the memorial,” he said. “There has not been any suggestion that any of our memorials are going to be damaged.”
Keeping the peace
Furlong made it clear that he believes it is important for his agency and others in the capital to take a supportive stance concerning rallies and protests.
“When you’re protesting government or society, Carson City is different than all other jurisdictions in the state,” he said. “This is our seat of government. It is appropriate that you voice your concerns at the government locations. So, having demonstrations in front of the capitol—in front of the legislature—that’s where these people have a right to demonstrate, and we need to be supportive of that. I would rather people demonstrate in front of the capitol than walking through neighborhoods screaming and hollering.”
His comment was in reference to car parades in support of President Trump clogging up neighborhoods around Carson City. Furlong said law enforcement agencies don’t take the protests lightly.
“These demonstrations do cause us concerns—because while there might be a hundred peaceful demonstrators out there, one person can cause it to go south on you,” Furlong said.
This very nearly was the case on Aug. 29 when a protest attendee accidentally fired a shot from a semi-automatic rifle. Furlong said an operations plan that includes de-escalation and non-confrontational tactics that his agency and others in the region have had in place since March prevented that.
“In that original plan, we anticipated a worst-case scenario and that that worst-case scenario was an accidental discharge of a gun, which could send aggressive law enforcement response into a crowd and cause a problem,” he said.
Furlong was at the capitol on the day the gun went off. He said he was near enough to watch the calm law enforcement response and that it reassured him that plans in place are working.
“It was recognized for what it was, and it was responded to for what it was—an accident,” he said. “The criticism says, ‘You can’t have an accident with a gun.’ Well, you can parse words all you want. He didn’t intend to shoot the gun. It just got shot.”
He added that the man who fired the weapon did “what every law enforcement officer in this country would hope that he would do—put the gun down; raise your hands.”
“It was beautiful,” Furlong said. “We’ve had so many incidents over the last eight months that have tested our plan, and in every single case the officers have just done an outstanding job.”
He said this is true of officers’ responses to incidents like the accidental discharge and recognizing people who are mishandling firearms, as well as just keeping the peace and keeping their own cool.
“We have had people very, very aggressively try to get officers to do something wrong,” Furlong said. “We have practices in place to pull any officer off the line who appears to be letting it get under his skin. I have seen them do that. The beauty of it is, every piece of our plan has been working and has been demonstrated.”
Planning for more protests
Furlong said he and his agency had long expected at least “a short reprieve” from demonstrations following the election and leading into the holiday season; however, this has not been the case.
“I also had expected it to pick back up by the February timeframe because, by then, Mr. Biden will have taken office—because that’s obvious to me,” he said. “Mr. Biden will be taking office, and then the legislature goes into session. So, I would have expected them to pick up at that point. What we saw this past weekend was [that] my judgement might have run short. They are already picking up.”
Furlong was referring to a Trump rally that happened at the capitol campus in mid-November, shortly before This Is Reno spoke with him. After the demonstration, a contingent of its attendees made their way to the governor’s mansion to protest Gov. Steve Sisolak.
“The demonstration this past weekend was very, very cooperative with us, extraordinarily cooperative—even though we did have some stern discussions with people,” he said. “But then the demonstration turned and decided to take a bit more of an aggressive stance up at the governor’s mansion, which we have not seen in the past several months. So, the step-up that your question addresses, it may be coming sooner than I anticipated.”
However, Furlong added that the demonstration at the governor’s mansion drew fewer people—about 50 by his estimate—many of whom left after just a short time.
“It could be—and I didn’t ask—but it could be that, yes, people want to demonstrate, and they want to be seen and heard—but most people don’t go along with the aggressiveness of some of the people on bullhorns,” Furlong said. “And they just don’t want to be a part of it. Most of your people, they’re demonstrating peacefully … but they don’t want to get into the viciousness of some of the words that are being said. So, probably within 30 minutes of them arriving at the mansion, that crowd dropped down to about half the size.”
He nonetheless now expects protests and rallies to continue—without a reprieve—for at least several months.
While protests at the post office staged in response to mail-in ballots have subsided, Furlong said other agendas are likely to result in new ones—from COVID-19 restrictions to discussions of gun control measures put forth under the incoming Biden administration.
“And you can just count on all of your fingers some of the agendas that are bubbling up right now,” he said. “You have the anti-Sisolak agendas. And, of course, every time the governor addresses COVID, that sends signals out to demonstrators: ‘Well, I want to go to church—and I don’t want restrictions. And I want to go to Thanksgiving with my family.’ So, all of those agenda pockets make up that entire crowd.”
Furlong said he expects COVID-19 numbers to continue increasing in the state well into February when the next session of the Nevada Legislature convenes.
“For all of these reasons, I think we will continue to see demonstrations and some angry people well into spring—if not all the way through,” he said.
He added that even in the face of regular protests continuing throughout that time period, his agencies and others will stick to their non-confrontational, peace keeping stance.
“I think that, as a capital city, law enforcement needs to take that stance,” Furlong said. “Be supportive of people who are demonstrating peacefully at their government. That’s how changes occur. You certainly will not create change if you keep quiet.”