PITTSBURGH (KDKA) — The violent protests and riots in Wisconsin and around the country have raised questions about guns, specifically open-carry laws.

People openly carrying firearms into volatile protests, is it vigilantism or citizens defending themselves? It’s a national debate sparked by events in Kenosha, where 17-year-old Kyle Rittenhouse — carrying an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle — is accused of fatally shooting two protesters.

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Local gun rights advocate Kim Stolfer calls it self-defense and says Rittenhouse, like others, was exercising his right to openly carry a firearm in a time of unrest.

(Photo Credit: KDKA)

“Citizens are stepping up because government is abdicating their authority in these communities to protect citizens,” Stolfer of Firearms Owners Against Crime said.

What some might call vigilantism, Stolfer calls citizens defending themselves and others by openly carrying weapons at a time when governments are restraining police in controlling violence.

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“When you call police back, when you fail to prosecute these violators of the law, these rioters, you get a situation where the people realize there is no law and order unless they provide it themselves,” said Stolfer.

But while Stolfer and others say they’re helping police maintain order, Allegheny County Sheriff William Mullen says people openly carrying weapons in volatile situations can make the job of policing harder by giving officers one more person to worry about.

“How do you tell the difference between a person not authorized to carry a firearm and an honest citizen who is walking down the street and using the ability to have the open carry in Pennsylvania?” Mullen said.

Here in Allegheny County, an unprecedented number of people have reacted to civil unrest by applying for the right to carry a concealed weapon. Permit application appointments are now backed up until February.

But Rob Conroy of CeaseFirePA says people openly carrying guns at protests merely puts gas on the fire.

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“What they’re doing is attempting to stifle opinions that are different than theirs and they are, by default, working to elevate the risk that someone is going to be shot and killed,” he said.