BELCHERTOWN — Joe Arpaio said Saturday that Massachusetts has produced three good things: the Boston Tea Party, the Minutemen and himself.
Arpaio, the controversial former Maricopa County, Arizona, sheriff who hails from Springfield, spoke as the headliner of a rally in support of Second Amendment rights in Belchertown.
For about 45 minutes, Arpaio spoke on gun rights, illegal immigration and his pending federal trial on charges of contempt of court.
“I asked Sheriff Joe to come up here because we have good people on the borders of this nation being killed by illegals coming over,” said event organizer Dave Kopacz. “Sheriff Joe is enforcing federal law.”
Arpaio has styled himself as “America’s Toughest Sheriff.” He became nationally known in the last 15 years for his hard-line stance on immigration, for battling findings of racial profiling in his sheriff’s department, and for his campaign to prove that former President Barack Obama’s birth certificate was forged — a long-ago debunked claim he continued to assert on Saturday during his speech.
The rally took place at the Swift River Sportsman’s Club and the 200 to 300 attendees each purchased a $25 ticket to enter.
The main point the former sheriff made regarding the Second Amendment was that he believes people should carry firearms to protect themselves, especially if a mass shooting unfolds in front of them.
Arpaio referenced recent mass shootings in Aurora, Colorado, and San Bernardino, California, and asked how it was possible there was no one armed in the area to take the shooter down before law enforcement arrived.
Some people argue an onlooker firing at a mass shooter might catch more innocent people in the crossfire, a point to which Arpaio responded during his speech.
“Sometimes, you have to take risks in life to save life,” he said.
Speakers at the rally also included Jeanette Finicum, the widow of an armed occupier of a national wildlife refuge in Oregon who was shot and killed in 2016 during the standoff with state and federal authorities. Other local gun rights advocates spoke as well.
Kopacz also brought reporters at the event on stage to publicly interview him about the rally. Questions from reporters and his answers were relayed to the audience via microphone, and the crowd sometimes shouted out their thoughts. He said this was for transparency and because he believes the First Amendment is as important as the Second.
He said the First Amendment exists for there to be open, public debate of societal issues, and the Second exists to stop tyranny.
“The Second Amendment was primarily put in place for killing tyrants,” Kopacz said.
Linda Sullivan came to the event from Kingston, and said she is a supporter of the Finicum family and the Second Amendment. She said she wants a national right to carry, which would allow a gun owner with a permit to carry firearms in one state to carry them in all states. She also takes issue with calls to ban semiautomatic weapons.
Sullivan said semiautomatic pistols and rifles are the weapons of choice for many Americans for self-defense, and she believes “an armed society is a polite society.”
“If you know people have a right to be armed, I think it makes criminals more cautious,” she said. “It just keeps people in check.”
Kirk Whatley, a speaker from Hadley who is an NRA-certified firearms trainer, said guns are “our first line of defense” because law enforcement can take minutes to respond during an emergency.
He also talked about gun laws and public sentiment toward gun owners in Massachusetts, where he believes juries will convict gun owners like himself of a crime for firing on an intruder or attacker unless the person has already shot him or beaten him near to death.
Whatley encouraged supporters to reach out to their community about Second Amendment rights, and so work to sway public opinion in favor of gun rights.
“Bring a friend next year. Bring a friend to the range,” Whatley said. “We’ve got to grow our numbers, so we can protect ourselves.”
While many speakers and rallygoers spoke of beliefs about the importance of guns for self-defense, speech topics also strayed away from the Second Amendment into discussions of immigration, Hillary Clinton and Islam.
Larry Pratt, executive director emeritus of Gun Owners of America, criticized the Quran to cheers from the audience. “It’s a totalitarian ideology, and for us to even tolerate that in the U.S. shows we still don’t get it.”
Many times throughout the event, attendees and speakers said they disagreed with assertions by some people that they’re racist.
Kopacz also said illegal immigration is bad not just for citizens but for undocumented people, too, because they have less access to resources when they’re “off the radar” and then “all kinds of bad things” happen to them.
“I have love for all people,” he said.
John Abrahamsen, a rally attendee from Groton, said he has problems with illegal immigration not because of the race of immigrants, but because he believes borders are the first thing that make a country a country.
He added that he believes recent immigrants don’t embrace the American values enumerated in the Constitution, which he said erodes national unity.
“This isn’t about racism,” Abrahamsen said. “It’s about keeping the country together.”
Counterprotesters gathered at the Belchertown Town Common, several miles from the rally, from noon to 2 p.m. to protest Arpaio’s visit.