You’ve seen the photos of the yahoos at various state capitols protesting the stay-at-home orders governors have called to fight the spread of coronavirus. The mostly-male protestors carrying flags of two armies that waged war against the United States, armed with battlefield weapons and lots of ammo, stalking the corridors of state government are, of course, nearly all-white.
Plenty of other commentators have noted the striking difference between police response to these armed agitators compared to the unarmed Black Lives Matter or Keystone XL protestors. It is simultaneously outrageous and utterly predictable.
I just want to focus on the concept of bearing arms at a protest and the media’s framing of that. Because I can’t evaluate the term “armed protest” as anything but oxymoronic.
What’s that firearm for?
I was raised in Idaho around guns. My grandfather was in the Canyon County Mounted Sheriff’s Posse. He and my uncles and cousins were avid hunters. Grandpa’s locked handgun and rifle case was in his den. We grandkids were taught early that it was locked, never get in it, all guns are loaded, never point them at anybody, which should never happen because you kids should never be touching them because they’re in this locked cabinet.
I had fired .22 rifles early enough I can’t remember how young I was… eight, maybe? By age 12, I was taking a hunter education course, though I’ve to this day never actually hunted (I just don’t get the thrill, but I accept that some people do). At age 17, I enlisted in the Idaho National Guard. Over the next six years, I fired the M-16 rifle (with the grenade launcher) and as a sergeant got to train on the M-60 machine gun.
I’m no gun guy, but I’ve been around guns and gun guys, ex-military, current cops, and dedicated hunters. I only bring all this up to emphasize the one core thing I’ve learned about guns in my life:
Guns are for killing.
I know, duh. But for all the talk of rights and needs and self-defense and government tyranny, we sometimes lose track of the core truth.
With that truth – guns are for killing – then there are really only two reasons for bearing arms:
- I need to kill somebody.
- I need to stop somebody from killing me.
Which brings us to these armed yahoos protesting at the capitols. Why do y’all need those firearms, fellas?
Nobody is threatening your safety. There’s no real self-defense argument for showing up to a protest armed, unless, say, armed counter-protestors were threatening you and police weren’t handling that. Clearly not the case here.
So, who do you need to kill? The governor? State lawmakers? Media?
By bearing arms, the message you send is you fear someone is going to harm you or you may need to harm someone.
That’s it. There is no neutral frame to the display of a firearm. Like the coiled spring, it is a source of potential energy. It says at minimum you consider me a threat and at maximum you are a threat.
How does that foster a productive dialogue?
It’s muh RIGHT!
Yes, we have a Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms, individually, as citizens, without membership in any well-regulated militia, despite what the plain meaning of the text says, because the Supreme Court said so. Agreed, I’ll save that argument for another day.
But just because you have a right to do something doesn’t stop you from being a dick about the way you exercise it. You have a First Amendment right to scream “I hate you!” at every person you see, too, but they’re going to think you’re an intimidating asshole.
I’m up in the mountains of Sumpter, Oregon, quite a bit. I’ll regularly see guys with a pistol strapped to their hip.
That’s fine, because these guys are out in the hinterlands. You can happen upon a black bear or a cougar. Maybe even a bad person with ill intent where police, sheriff, or park ranger is very far away.
But these yahoos are in the city at a state capitol with plenty of armed police nearby. You’re safe, fellas!
Protest is First Amendment, not Second
The First Amendment protects our right to protest, and it does so in the combination of these three rights:
- Freedom of Speech
- Right to Peaceable Assembly
- Right to Petition Government for a Redress of Grievances
Assembling an armed force cannot be a peaceable assembly. The presence of guns establishes that the ultimate say rests with the armed, rather than the side with the best arguments and most votes.
They might argue that they have been peaceful. Sure, and the ticking bomb has not exploded. It’s the potential that matters. If you come to a protest, assembled peaceably, and make your case to redress a grievance, the point will be decided by the government in which we all participate.
I don’t argue that process works efficiently, as civil rights and Native lands protestors can tell you. But it is the only legitimate means for us to settle our disputes.
It’s well past time for these gatherings to be treated as if the armed yahoos had darker complexions. The longer these neo-Confederate white supremacist organizations get away with staging mobilizations against our government, the easier it is for them one day to be activated by the tweet of a madman.