Russian playwright Anton Chekhov noted that, as a dramatic device, a gun introduced in the first act of a play must be fired in the second, otherwise it has no reason to be there. Let’s hope that’s not as true in life as it is in art, now that we have an armed racist right squaring off against leftist counter-protesters in public confrontations.
We’ve already seen violence, even death, at these rallies. But the potential is for much worse if participants continue to carry guns into such provocative situations. The question is how to minimize the risk without trampling peoples’ constitutional rights.
The 1st Amendment to the Constitution establishes the right to free speech and peaceful assembly. The 2nd Amendment creates a right to own firearms. Neither is absolute. Nevertheless, firearms have become a significant presence in our culture, and only a dozen states prohibit people from carrying them openly in public. What’s more, over 40 states have NRA-backed “preemption” laws, which to varying degrees limit the ability of local governments to adopt stricter gun regulations than the state as a whole.
Virginia is a preemption state that also allows open carry, and the nation saw the results at Charlottesville, where paramilitary militias — men heavily armed with military-style weapons and in some cases battle gear — appeared as part of the “Unite the Right” rally. But far-left groups, including the so-called Redneck Revolt, a liberal pro-gun group, have also paraded around with their firearms at various demonstrations.
People playing out their gun fantasies must not be allowed to circumscribe the right to free speech and assembly.
Now, another provocative rally — aimed at promoting “the true Confederate heritage” — is planned for Sept. 23 in Austin, Texas. Billing it as a “Dixie Freedom Rally,” its organizers, the Texas Confederate Militia, are telling prospective attendees that state law will allow them to bring openly carried and concealed handguns, as well as long rifles. Given the mix of firearms, passions and politics, it’s not hard to see the potential for violence.
This is a problem that the nation must resolve. A group of self-organized, trained and heavily armed men (and these groups are predominantly male) is a paramilitary organization, and giving it megaphones and parade banners doesn’t magically transform it into something peaceful. Adding “open carry” to a contentious event can put public safety at risk, and the presence of visible firearms creates unique problems for the police.
“Open carry” can also be an act of intimidation. Here’s one illustration: During the “Unite the Right” event, gun-toting and swastika-carrying Nazis chanting anti-Semitic slogans marched past a Charlottesville synagogue containing 40 worshippers, leaving them so frightened that they felt compelled to sneak out the back. And here’s another: In April 2016, opposing protesters at a Dallas-area Nation of Islam mosque engaged in a tense face-off that, fortunately, ended without those Chekhovian firearms being used. This is not the America we want.
Another complicating factor: Two dozen states, including Texas, have adopted “stand your ground” laws similar to the one that became an issue in Florida after George Zimmerman shot of wrongdoing after shooting dead 17-year-old Trayvon Martin during a confrontation. The details differ among the states, but at their core the laws allow people to shoot to kill if they perceive they are under physical threat.
Incendiary political speech, demonstrators, open-carry and stand-your-ground laws — what could possibly go wrong here?
This is madness. Police train to control unruly crowds, and develop strategies for separating rival groups of protesters, but are they equipped — and able — to keep the peace when the protesters have become paramilitary militias? If states such as Virginia and Texas insist on allowing citizens to brazenly strut around their streets with guns slung over their shoulders like Third World mercenaries, they must at least make an exception at rallies and demonstrations. A ban on weapons — from firearms to pointed sticks, concealed or carried openly — should be a condition for obtaining a permit.
Fearing violence, some lawmakers and advocates have urged officials not to give permits, period, for these contentious rallies. But that’s the wrong answer. It’s not the right to speech and assembly that should be restricted; it’s the right to carry guns in certain potentially explosive situations. Gun advocates like to argue they have the right to bear arms as a bulwark against tyrannical government, but government has a responsibility here as well: to keep people safe.