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No More Open Carrying at Political Protests

By all means, let's protect the Second Amendment. But let's also not enable a situation where tensions boil over and result in violence.
A protester open carries an AR style black military type

When gun-toting protesters descended on the state capitol in Richmond back in January (God, it seems like a lifetime ago) to protest Governor Ralph Northam’s gun control proposals, I was slow to condemn them. I’m a staunch (though not fanatical) supporter of the Second Amendment, and the rally ended up being entirely peaceful.

There was a certain logic to it: Northam wants to restrict our gun rights, so we’ll demonstrate our ability to exercise them responsibly. Look! We’re all standing around with AR-15s, and nobody’s getting hurt.

Little did I know that guns would soon become a permanent fixture at right-wing protests, whether they had anything to do with gun rights or not. I sympathize to a degree with the Reopeners who have rallied in Harrisburg and Lansing in recent weeks, but the sheer number of firearms frightened me. The stories and images of armed protesters menacing Kevlar-clad Michigan legislators were nothing short of stomach-turning.

People who show up to protests with assault weapons imagine themselves to be the authentic representatives of the Spirit of ’76. They’re fond of quoting Benjamin Franklin’s advice about the foolishness of giving up “essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety” and Thomas Jefferson’s proclamation that the “tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” For them, American freedom means an unending Mexican standoff between an armed populace and an armed government, Clint Eastwood facing down Lee Van Cleef, and God help the one who blinks. Vigilance may be the price of freedom, but armed paranoia is no basis for a stable or livable society.

If these people want to own guns, that’s their business, but that isn’t enough for them. They need to be armed and let everyone around them know it. I once worked in a gun store where every employee (except me) wore a full-sized pistol on his hip, but when they were off the clock, they carried concealed. There were two reasons for this.

The first is that carrying a firearm openly for self-defense is stupid. Experts, such as this police veteran writing for American Handgunner magazine, agree:

I like carrying concealed, as opposed to open carry, for a couple of reasons. Surprise is still one of the best tactics out there. Just ask any military leader. It gives you time to assess the situation. …

Carrying concealed also makes you less of a target. If a bad guy sees you armed, you’re the immediate threat to his success of doing whatever dastardly deed he’s intent on doing — and he will react accordingly. Carrying concealed at least puts the time-line more on your terms.

The second reason is common courtesy. Nobody looks askance at someone wearing a gun in a gun store (well, a few people did, and we made fun of them after they left), but somebody walking down the street with a gun makes everyone uneasy. Open carry has several disadvantages and only two advantages: possibly deterring crime and intimidating the people around you. And I don’t just mean gun-phobic liberal pansies. I know my way around a gun better than a lot of civilians, and even I get nervous in the presence of an open carrier. It’s not an irrational fear of guns; it’s a very rational fear of people. Such people need to see fear in the eyes of others. They then threaten and mock anyone who takes it as a threat. When mobs carry guns on city streets while making political demands, they extend this threat exponentially. They want everyone in a several-block radius, perhaps in the entire country, to know that they are ready to kill. For all their talk of liberty, these armed protesters scorn the non-aggression principle that true libertarians hold sacred.

The armed Reopeners who terrorized Michigan’s state legislators aren’t Branch Davidians or Cliven Bundy’s militia allies. They don’t just want government to leave them alone; they want to shape policy, and not with the ballot but with the bullet.

When I saw those American citizens using firearms to intimidate lawmakers in the halls of government, I thought of another March on Rome, the bloodless coup that brought Mussolini to power and inspired Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch.

On October 24, 1922, Mussolini announced his intention to depose the elected government and “rule Italy.” Tens of thousands of armed Italian civilians, organized into paramilitary militias and claiming to be stalwart patriots, responded to his call. They descended on the capital and forced King Victor Emmanuel III to hand control of government to the Fascists. It was all perfectly constitutional, except for the fact that it was done at gunpoint.

Nonviolent protest is a noble pursuit and an important part of any functioning democracy. A large and vocal crowd makes grievances visible and impossible to ignore. Civil disobedience can open dialogue and sway the conscience. Protest with the threat of violence, on the other hand, is mere thuggery.

Imagine a scenario:

It’s November 4, 2020. The votes have been counted. It doesn’t matter who won; people are furious either way. Both sides are convinced that the current system presents insurmountable barriers, whether the Electoral College or the Deep State, to their vision of what America should be. Protests and counter-protests spring up in every major city. The right-wingers bring their guns because that’s just what one does at a protest now. Maybe Antifa brings some guns as well. Curses and threats fill the air as the cops turn out in force to keep the two sides from killing each other. Somebody grabs at somebody’s sign. A punch is thrown. A shot rings out—a shot heard ’round the world.

Before anyone knows what’s happening, pitched battles are raging in the streets with thousands of armed combatants on each side. Government buildings become besieged fortresses, and legislators and bureaucrats are taken hostage. Politicians and pundits take sides, while police officers, National Guard members, and federal troops try to choose between conflicting loyalties. The America we knew is gone. And all because some conspiracy-addled nutjob couldn’t control his trigger finger.

I support every American’s right, including my own, to protest any infringements on their freedom. What I don’t support is the right of an armed minority to rob me of my security, destabilize my country, and draft me into a war of all against all.

Grayson Quay is a freelance writer and M.A. at Georgetown University.



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