WASHINGTON -- An Iraq war veteran and Internet talk show host is trying to gather thousands of protesters to march into Washington on Independence Day with loaded rifles on their backs.
But if Adam Kokesh follows through with his fourth of July plans -- 2,500 people have signed up for the cause -- he and his makeshift band will be met on the Arlington Memorial Bridge by two police forces packing guns of their own.
Kokesh, 31, and Washington Police Chief Cathy Lanier say they want to work together to ensure a peaceful airing of grievances. But the chief says only one side can have guns: hers. And she'll have backup from the U.S. Park Police, which will also position officers at the Washington line.
"If you're coming here to protest government policy, great," Lanier said Tuesday on her monthly appearance on NewsChannel 8, reacting to the group's plan to cross the Potomac River from Arlington National Cemetery. "If you're coming here to break the law, we'll take action."
Lanier added, "There's a pretty good chance we'll meet them on the D.C. side of the bridge."
Kokesh is calling the event an "Open Carry March" but described it as a general demonstration against "tyranny," not a protest against specific gun laws.
News of the march comes amid a national debate over gun regulations that emerged after the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. Kokesh has chosen to stage his protest in one of the most strictly regulated cities when it comes to firearms laws -- and one of the most contested.
Washington allows residents to possess registered firearms on their property but forbids carrying them in public. And it was the backdrop for a landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2008 that struck down a total ban on firearms -- and guaranteed the right to own a gun for self-defense.
Kokesh's timing is curious given the recent success of gun-rights advocates in defeating proposed firearms restrictions in Congress in the wake of the Newtown massacre. However, efforts to revive the legislation are underway.
Authorities noted that they have not been in contact with Kokesh, who returned from Iraq a self-proclaimed libertarian and antiwar activist. Kokesh publicized his plans in Internet postings.
On his blog, "Adam Vs The Man," Kokesh called on people to register for the march, which he called an act of civil disobedience.
He said protesters with loaded guns slung across their backs will march around Washington's seats of power -- the U.S. Capitol, the Supreme Court and the White House.
Kokesh wrote that he is planning a nonviolent protest, but he won't predict what could happen if the police move in with force. He urged protesters to submit to arrests and said the group will peacefully turn back if denied entry to Washington. Separately, he said some protesters plan to take a step into Washington to prompt an arrest.
"We will march with rifles loaded and flung across our backs to put the government on notice that we will not be intimidated and cower in submission to tyranny," Kokesh wrote on his website. "Should we meet physical resistance, we will peacefully turn back, having shown that free people are not welcome in Washington. . . . We are truly saying in the SUBTLEST way possible that we would rather die on our feet than live on our knees."
He said he wants to work with law enforcement and hopes that Lanier will make an exception to the law and grant his group safe passage, and even a police escort, through Washington . A Washington police spokeswoman said the protesters will not be allowed in Washington while carrying firearms.
Sgt. Paul Brooks of the U.S. Park Police said guns are not allowed in the cemetery in Arlington, Va.. But he said it appears that the group plans to start just outside the cemetery gates, along Memorial Drive. He said the organization has not sought a permit, as required for demonstrations on National Park Service property, but Kokesh said on the website he does not intend to get one.
Lanier said on the television program that city representatives are willing to meet with Kokesh and other leaders "to facilitate whatever they want to get accomplished in a legal way." But, she said, "passing into the District with loaded firearms is a violation of the law, and it will be treated as such."
In 2007, Kokesh was photographed at the Hart Senate Office Building being arrested wearing a T-shirt that read, "Iraq veterans against the war." He was arrested again in 2011 when he led a group dancing at the Jefferson Memorial, and he has gotten into trouble for protesting in a Marine uniform and for taking a souvenir gun home from the battlefield.