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Armed Men Seen Outside Barack Obama Event

A dozen people carrying guns, including at least two with assault rifles, were seen mingling among protesters outside a convention centre where President Barack Obama was speaking.

Alex Spillius

A dozen people carrying guns, including at least two with assault rifles, were seen mingling among protesters outside a convention centre where President Barack Obama was speaking. (Photo: AP)

The incident in Phoenix raised fears that the heated debate over his reform agenda could lead to deadly violence.

Phoenix police said the men carrying guns at Monday's event did not need permits, as the state of Arizona has an "open carry" law. No crimes were committed, and no one was arrested.

One of the men carrying a rifle declined to be identified but told The Arizona Republic that he was carrying the assault weapon because he could. "In Arizona, I still have some freedoms," he said.

Detective J. Oliver, who was monitoring the man at the downtown protest, said police wanted to make sure no one decided to attempt to harm Mr Obama.

"Just by his presence and people seeing the rifle and people knowing the president was in town, it sparked a lot of emotions," Det Oliver said.

"We were keeping peace on both ends."

The other rifle-carrier, a smartly dressed man who appeared to be in his late 20s, had an AR15 slung over his shoulder.

Mr Obama was speaking to the Veterans of Foreign Wars about improving benefits for veterans, and thanking the armed services for their sacrifice.

But even a non-controversial event attracted lively protests for and against the president, notwithstanding the presence of so many armed civilians.

It was the latest incident where gun-carriers have been spotted outside events where the president has appeared, usually to tout his health care reform plans on an increasingly dubious public.

Right-wing opponents have denounced the proposals, which could introduce a government-run health insurance company, as an assault on liberty.

The election of a Democrat and the first black president, who is suspected of being a devout liberal by many on the right, has set off fears that he will increase gun control, raise taxes and increase the role of government.

Last week, during a town hall meeting on health care in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, a man carrying a sign reading "It is time to water the tree of liberty" stood outside with a pistol strapped to his leg.

Paul Helmke, president of the Washington-based Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said people should not be allowed to bring guns to events where Obama is.

"To me, this is craziness," he said. "When you bring a loaded gun, particularly a loaded assault rifle, to any political event, but particularly to one where the president is appearing, you're just making the situation dangerous for everyone."

He said people who bring guns to presidential events are distracting the Secret Service and law enforcement from protecting the president. "The more guns we see at more events like this, there's more potential for something tragic happening," he said.

Patricia Murphy, a political columnist, told CNN: "To me this is absolutely terrifying. This entire debate is inching closer and closer to a place people don't want to think about, where anger will turn to violence.

Joe Klein, a veteran political reporter now with Time magazine, said: "In 40 years I have never seen anything like this. There is a right to bear arms but there is a right to protect the president."

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