At protests across America, guns are doing the talkingDec 5, 2022
Armed Americans, often pushing a right-wing agenda, are increasingly using open-carry laws to intimidate opponents and shut down debate.
Across the country, openly carrying a gun in public is no longer just an exercise in self-defence — increasingly it is a soapbox for elevating one’s voice and, just as often, quieting someone else’s.
This month, armed protesters appeared outside an elections centre in Phoenix, hurling baseless accusations that the election for governor had been stolen from the Republican, Kari Lake. In October, Proud Boys with guns joined a rally in Nashville where conservative lawmakers spoke against transgender medical treatments for minors.
In June, armed demonstrations around the United States amounted to nearly one a day. A group led by a former Republican state legislator protested a gay pride event in a public park in Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. Men with guns interrupted a Juneteenth festival in Franklin, Tenn., handing out fliers claiming that white people were being replaced. Among the others were rallies in support of gun rights in Delaware and abortion rights in Georgia.
Whether at the local library, in a park or on Main Street, most of these incidents happen where Republicans have fought to expand the ability to bear arms in public, a movement bolstered by a recent Supreme Court ruling on the right to carry firearms outside the home. The loosening of limits has occurred as violent political rhetoric rises and the police in some places fear bloodshed among an armed populace on a hair trigger.
But the effects of more guns in public spaces have not been evenly felt. A partisan divide — with Democrats largely eschewing firearms and Republicans embracing them — has warped civic discourse. Deploying the Second Amendment in service of the First has become a way to buttress a policy argument, a sort of silent, if intimidating, bullhorn.
“It’s disappointing we’ve gotten to that state in our country,” said Kevin Thompson, executive director of the Museum of Science & History in Memphis, Tenn., where armed protesters led to the cancellation of an L.G.B.T.Q. event in September. “What I saw was a group of folks who did not want to engage in any sort of dialogue and just wanted to impose their belief.”
A New York Times analysis of more than 700 armed demonstrations found that, at about 77 percent of them, people openly carrying guns represented right-wing views, such as opposition to L.G.B.T.Q. rights and abortion access, hostility to racial justice rallies and support for former President Donald J. Trump’s lie of winning the 2020 election.
The records, from January 2020 to last week, were compiled by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a nonprofit that tracks political violence around the world. The Times also interviewed witnesses to other, smaller-scale incidents not captured by the data, including encounters with armed people at indoor public meetings.
Anti-government militias and right-wing culture warriors like the Proud Boys attended a majority of the protests, the data showed. Violence broke out at more than 100 events and often involved fisticuffs with opposing groups, including left-wing activists such as antifa.
Republican politicians are generally more tolerant of openly armed supporters than are Democrats, who are more likely to be on the opposing side of people with guns, the records suggest. In July, for example, men wearing sidearms confronted Beto O’Rourke, then the Democratic candidate for Texas governor, at a campaign stop in Whitesboro and warned that he was “not welcome in this town.”
Republican officials or candidates appeared at 32 protests where they were on the same side as those with guns. Democratic politicians were identified at only two protests taking the same view as those armed.
Sometimes, the Republican officials carried weapons: Robert Sutherland, a Washington state representative, wore a pistol on his hip while protesting Covid-19 restrictions in Olympia in 2020. “Governor,” he said, speaking to a crowd, “you send men with guns after us for going fishing. We’ll see what a revolution looks like.”
The occasional appearance of armed civilians at demonstrations or governmental functions is not new. In the 1960s, the Black Panthers displayed guns in public when protesting police brutality. Militia groups, sometimes armed, rallied against federal agents involved in violent standoffs at Ruby Ridge and Waco in the 1990s.
But the frequency of these incidents exploded in 2020, with conservative pushback against public health measures to fight the coronavirus and response to the sometimes violent rallies after the murder of George Floyd. Today, in some parts of the country with permissive gun laws, it is not unusual to see people with handguns or military-style rifles at all types of protests.
For instance, at least 14 such incidents have occurred in and around Dallas and Phoenix since May, including outside an F.B.I. field office to condemn the search of Mr. Trump’s home and, elsewhere, in support of abortion rights. In New York and Washington, where gun laws are strict, there were none — even though numerous demonstrations took place during that same period.
Many conservatives and gun-rights advocates envision virtually no limits. When Democrats in Colorado and Washington State passed laws this year prohibiting firearms at polling places and government meetings, Republicans voted against them. Indeed, those bills were the exception.
Attempts by Democrats to impose limits in other states have mostly failed, and some form of open carry without a permit is now legal in 38 states, a number that is likely to expand as legislation advances in several more. In Michigan, where a Tea Party group recently advertised poll-watcher training using a photo of armed men in camouflage, judges have rejected efforts to prohibit guns at voting locations.
Gun rights advocates assert that banning guns from protests would violate the right to carry firearms for self-defence. Jordan Stein, a spokesman for Gun Owners of America, pointed to Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager acquitted last year in the shooting of three people during a chaotic demonstration in Kenosha, Wis., where he had walked the streets with a military-style rifle.
“At a time when protests often devolve into riots, honest people need a means to protect themselves,” he said.
Beyond self-defence, Mr. Stein said the freedom of speech and the right to have a gun are “bedrock principles” and that “Americans should be able to bear arms while exercising their First Amendment rights, whether that’s going to church or a peaceful assembly.”
Others argue that openly carrying firearms at public gatherings, particularly when there is no obvious self-defence reason, can have a corrosive effect, leading to curtailed activities, suppressed opinions or public servants who quit out of fear and frustration.
Concerned about armed protesters, local election officials in Arizona, Colorado and Oregon have requested bulletproofing for their offices.
Adam Searing, a lawyer and Georgetown University professor who helps families secure access to health care, said he saw the impact on free speech when people objecting to Covid restrictions used guns to make their point. In some states, disability rights advocates were afraid to show up to support mask mandates because of armed opposition, Mr. Searing said.
“What was really disturbing was the guns became kind of a signifier for political reasons,” he said, adding, “It was just about pure intimidation.”
The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project has been tracking such incidents in the United States for the past few years. Events captured by the data are not assigned ideological labels but include descriptions, and are collected from news sources, social media and independent partners like the Network Contagion Research Institute, which monitors extremism and disinformation online.
The Times’s analysis found that the largest drivers of armed demonstrations have shifted since 2020. This year, protesters with guns are more likely to be motivated by abortion or L.G.B.T.Q. issues. Sam Jones, a spokesman for the nonpartisan data group, said that upticks in armed incidents tended to correspond to “different flash-point events and time periods, like the Roe v. Wade decision and Pride Month.”
In about a quarter of the cases, left-wing activists also were armed. Many times it was a response, they said, to right-wing intimidation. Other times it was not, such as when about 40 demonstrators, some with rifles, blocked city officials in Dallas from clearing a homeless encampment in July.
More than half of all armed protests occurred in 10 states with expansive open-carry laws: Arizona, Georgia, Kentucky, Michigan, North Carolina, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Texas, Virginia and Washington. Three of them — Michigan, Oregon and Texas — allowed armed protesters to gather outside capitol buildings ahead of President Biden’s inauguration, and in Michigan, militia members carrying assault rifles were permitted inside the capitol during protests against Covid lockdowns.
Beyond the mass gatherings, there are everyday episodes of armed intimidation. Kimber Glidden had been director of the Boundary County Library in Northern Idaho for a couple of months when some parents began raising questions in February about books they believed were inappropriate for children.
It did not matter that the library did not have most of those books — largely dealing with gender, sexuality and race — or that those it did have were not in the children’s section. The issue became a cause célèbre for conservative activists, some of whom began showing up with guns to increasingly tense public meetings, Ms. Glidden said.
“How do you stand there and tell me you want to protect children when you’re in the children’s section of the library and you’re armed?” she asked.
In August, she resigned, decrying the “intimidation tactics and threatening behaviour.”
A growing militancy
At a Second Amendment rally in June 2021 outside the statehouse in Harrisburg, Pa., where some people were armed, Republican speakers repeatedly connected the right to carry a gun to other social and cultural issues. Representative Scott Perry voiced a frequent conservative complaint about censorship, saying the First Amendment was “under assault.”
“And you know very well what protects the First,” he said. “Which is what we’re doing here today.”
Stephanie Borowicz, a state legislator, was more blunt, boasting to the crowd that “tyrannical governors” had been forced to ease coronavirus restrictions because “as long as we’re an armed population, the government fears us.”
Pennsylvania, like some other states with permissive open-carry laws, is home to right-wing militias that sometimes appear in public with firearms. They are often welcomed, or at least accepted, by Republican politicians.
When a dozen militia members, some wearing skull masks and body armour, joined a protest against Covid restrictions in Pittsburgh in April 2020, Jeff Neff, a Republican borough council president running for the state senate, posed for a photo with the group. In it, he is holding his campaign sign, surrounded by men with military-style rifles.
In an email, Mr. Neff said he had since left politics, and expressed regret over past news coverage of the photo, adding, “Please know that I do not condone any threats or action of violence by any person or groups.”
Across the country, there is evidence of increasing Republican involvement in militias. A membership list for the Oath Keepers, made public last year, includes 81 elected officials or candidates, according to a report by the Anti-Defamation League. Most of them appear to be Republicans.
Another nationwide militia, the American Patriots Three Percent, recently told prospective members that it worked to support “individuals seeking election to local G.O.P. boards,” according to an archived version of its website.
More than 25 members of the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters have been charged in the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol. Those organisations, along with the Proud Boys and Boogaloo Boys, make up the bulk of organised groups in the armed-protest data, according to The Times’s analysis.
Shootings were rare, such as when a Proud Boy was shot in the foot while chasing antifa members during a protest over Covid lockdowns in Olympia last year. But Mr. Jones said the data, which also tracked unarmed demonstrations, showed that while armed protests accounted for less than 2 percent of the total, they were responsible for 10 percent of those where violence occurred, most often involving fights between rival groups.
“Armed groups or individuals might say they have no intention of intimidating anyone and are only participating in demonstrations to keep the peace,” said Mr. Jones, “but the evidence doesn’t back up the claim.”
In a landmark 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court held that the Second Amendment conveyed a basic right to bear arms for lawful purposes such as self-defence at home. It went further in a decision this June that struck down New York restrictions on concealed-pistol permits, effectively finding a right to carry firearms in public.
But the court in Heller also made clear that gun rights were not unlimited, and that its ruling did not invalidate laws prohibiting “the carrying of firearms in sensitive places.” That caveat was reiterated in a concurring opinion in the New York case.
Even some hard-line gun rights advocates are uncomfortable with armed people at public protests. Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, told The Washington Times in 2017 that “if you are carrying it to make a political point, we are not going to support that.”
“Firearms serve a purpose,” he said, “and the purpose is not a mouthpiece.”
But groups that embrace Second Amendment absolutism do not hesitate to criticise fellow advocates who stray from that orthodoxy.
After Dan Crenshaw, a Republican congressman from Texas and former Navy SEAL, lamented in 2020 that “guys dressing up in their Call of Duty outfits, marching through the streets,” were not advancing the cause of gun rights, he was knocked by the Firearms Policy Coalition for “being critical of people exercising their right to protest.” The coalition has fought state laws that it says force gun owners to choose between the rights to free speech and self-defence.
Regardless of whether there is a right to go armed in public for self-defence, early laws and court decisions made clear that the Constitution did not empower people, such as modern-day militia members, to gather with guns as a form of protest, said Michael C. Dorf, a constitutional law professor at Cornell University who has written about the tension between the rights to free speech and guns.
Mr. Dorf pointed to an 18th-century Pennsylvania Supreme Court ruling that a group of protesters with firearms had no right to rally in public against a government tax. Some states also adopted an old English law prohibiting “going armed to the terror of the people,” still on the books in some places, aimed at preventing the use of weapons to threaten or intimidate.
“Historically,” said Mr. Dorf, “there were such limits on armed gatherings, even assuming that there’s some right to be armed as individuals.”
More broadly, there is no evidence that the framers of the Constitution intended for Americans to take up arms during civic debate among themselves — or to intimidate those with differing opinions. That is what happened at the Memphis museum in September, when people with guns showed up to protest a scheduled dance party that capped a summer-long series on the history of the L.G.B.T.Q. community in the South.
While the party was billed as “family friendly,” conservatives on local talk radio claimed that children would be at risk (the museum said the planned activities were acceptable for all ages). As armed men wearing masks milled about outside, the panicked staff canceled all programs and evacuated the premises.
Mr. Thompson, the director, said he and his board were now grappling with the laws on carrying firearms, which were loosened last year by state legislators.
“It’s a different time,” he said, “and it’s something we have to learn to navigate.”