J’Den McAdory seems like just a kid.
He’s a 20-year-old who’s planning to join the Army in August. He delivers food and works in a local produce section.
McAdory is also a young man who has stepped right into one of America’s many intractable messes: the fight over gun rights.
Since February, he’s been walking around the townhouse complex where he lives with his parents in Severn while carrying a fully loaded AR-15-style rifle. He keeps a loaded magazine in his pocket and sports a red “Make America Great Again” cap.
“I’ve been doing this for months, maybe even since February,” he told me Friday.
The protest is about Maryland’s new gun law, which Gov. Wes Moore signed this week. It limits who can get concealed carry handgun permits and where they can be used.
Lots of people are upset with McAdory because what started as a poorly thought-out political protest about the Second Amendment has terrified kids and parents. They’re rightly frightened about being caught in the next mass shooting.
Police have told McAdory that his protest is legal; the Radical Firearms AR-15 gun in question isn’t regulated by state law, so carrying it around is permitted. Others, though, have told him to stop.
“It has come to our attention that since Monday, May 15th, you have been purposely choosing to open-carry an AR-15 rifle in the presence of elementary school children at school bus stops,” Anne Arundel County attorney Gregory Swain wrote Thursday in a hand-delivered letter. “Your course of conduct is placing those children in reasonable fear for their lives, and safety, and directly causing a disruption to the public peace in public areas where school children are present and during a time period in our society where school shootings have unfortunately become so frequent that parents and school officials have a reasonable concern about your current actions around them.”
If McAdory continues, Swain warned, he could face arrest for stalking, harassment, disrupting schools and disturbing the peace. The threshold is causing others to live in fear.
Now the protest is growing, fueled by media attention. There were two men standing with guns Friday afternoon, McAdory and a masked friend who refused to give his name. McAdory told him not to speak.
He had a shotgun slung over his belly with the barrel pointed up.
“Can you please move that?” I asked as I talked to McAdory, noticing it was inadvertently pointed at my head.
Then it got worse.
Lewis Bracy, a longtime community activist who for years has been protesting the policies of former President Donald Trump, showed up in the Lake Village Townhouse neighborhood with a sign after talking to me over the phone.
A retired federal police officer, he also brought his handgun in a holster on his hip. He started yelling, calling McAdory and his masked companion — all three men are Black — “Uncle Tom.” Bracy began to argue with McAdory’s mom, too. She showed up with a cell phone to record what happened and told one of a growing number of Anne Arundel County Police officers that Bracy had hit her car.
McAdory walked across the street to the confrontation and told his mother to go home.
Fifteen minutes later, a school bus pulled up.
McAdory said he had talked to his parents about his idea for the protest, and convinced them that it was safe. He said nobody noticed at first.
“I just walk my community,” McAdory said. “It’s a normal walk. I just added an AR-15.”
Then someone said he was approaching kids. He denied it but said he has waved to them. He’s trying to make the point that someone with a gun isn’t necessarily bad.
He acknowledged having angry exchanges with Bracy and others who have driven to his neighborhood to take cellphone videos of his walk.
This week, children and parents voiced their concerns about the protest to the principal of a nearby elementary school.
Though the streets where McAdory walks with his gun are about a 3-minute drive from the nearest school, AR-15-style weapons have been used in some of the nation’s most horrific tragedies. They include the May 24, 2022 shooting in Uvalde, Texas that killed 19 students and two teachers; the May 14, 2022 shooting at a Buffalo, New York supermarket that killed 10 people; and the Feb. 14, 2018 shooting at a Parkland, Florida high school that left 17 dead.
Bob Mosier, the longtime communications director for Anne Arundel County Public Schools, called McAdory to talk about his protest this week and the impact it was having on his community.
“He has certainly evoked fear and panic,” Mosier said. “That’s what happens when you walk up to people with a gun.”
Both men described the conversation as cordial, and McAdory said he agreed not to take his gun for a walk when school buses are dropping off students in the neighborhood.
“He cleared up some things for me. A lot of people in my community were calling me an active shooter,” McAdory told me “That’s not what it is.”
A lot of people are wondering how, or maybe why, this is legal.
Anne Colt Leitess, the Anne Arundel County state’s attorney, said police and school officials came to her with the same question. Friday, she said the gun that McAdory is carrying isn’t currently regulated by the state, and that means rules about carrying guns in public don’t apply to it. Disrupting school is a crime, she said, but maybe not if it’s just walking near a school bus — and sending some kids fleeing in fear.
Leitess said that she and Swain, the county attorney, conferred with police and school officials and agreed to deliver the letter. If police want to charge McAdory with harassment, they have to put him on notice to stop. The letter accomplishes that.
“We’ve all spoken on the phone,” Leitess said. “If he stands there peacefully, not walking up to children and without frightening children, it’s legal.”
As a form of protest, it doesn’t seem like it’s an effective strategy. McAdory said he’s reached out to elected officials and none have responded. A spokesman for Gov. Moore criticized the protest.
“To stem the tide of gun violence and create safer, stronger communities, we need partnership — not shallow acts of cowardice and intimidation,” spokesman Carter Elliot wrote in an email. “Scaring our kids and threatening our communities won’t help make Maryland safe. The governor won’t allow these tactics to stop his administration from taking common-sense steps to protect our communities. He condemns this behavior and will keep fighting to build a safer Maryland.”
Is it smart? No, and in our conversation Friday, McAdory said he was starting to realize that.
I told him that I thought what he was doing was not only scaring people but putting himself in danger. He’s risking his induction into the Army if charged, and physical danger if someone decides to try to stop his walks after police deemed them legal.
“I do think that,” he replied. “I was just in my room reflecting on all this. It’s kind of getting to me. I wasn’t expecting all this backlash.”
But there he was again Friday afternoon. Him, me, the masked man with the shotgun, and some guy named Spencer who showed up unarmed in support.
Then Bracy arrived with his sign and handgun.
During an earlier exchange with Bracy, McAdory appeared to remain calm as the retiree angrily told him what he was doing was not legal in Maryland.
Bracy acknowledged that he is angry, and said he believes McAdory’s protest is part of a coordinated effort. He said he returned to make a point. He wants state lawmakers to require insurance for guns like the one that McAdory was carrying. He believes that will make it harder for people to afford them
“I’m the anti-version of him,” said Bracy.
Online, people are calling McAdory names. Some, he said, have offered to fight him in front of his parents.
In the neighborhood, some are friendly to McAdory. “S’up,” he said to a passing pickup driver who waved.
Others are fearful. “I was told by my walking partner not to go over there,” said Mildred Pilden, who turned around from her normal route.
My concern is that the presence of a loaded weapon changes the equation in every human interaction, no matter McAdory’s stated intent. What happens if, come Monday, others with unregulated guns decide they’re going to patrol, or walk, their neighborhoods?
How long before a shot is fired and someone is hurt — or killed?
There was no violence Friday. The school bus dropped off its kids, and Bracy went to a doctor’s appointment. McAdory and his masked friend walked on.
The number of police, which went from one to two to eight, dwindled. The TV crew left, as did a photographer from The Washington Post.
“MSNBC ran a piece on it,” said one neighbor who stopped to say hi.
MSNBC’s Jen Psaki, a former press secretary to President Joe Biden, tweeted: “Nope … there are not two sides of bringing an assault weapon to an elementary school bus stop.”
McAdory said he learned that what he intended to do was legal from online forums, and from fellow hunters. He said he just wanted to remove the stigma of people with a gun; that not everyone who has one is a bad person.
Letiess said his actions, however, are “having the opposite effect.”
J’Den, I’ll repeat here what I told you as we talked in your Severn neighborhood.
Put your gun down — before someone gets hurt.
This column has been updated to correct the spelling of J'Den McAdory's name.