Saturday, November 26, 2022

Protesters dressed in 'Call of Duty outfits' with big guns 'not advancing the cause of gun rights'

Across the country, openly carrying a gun in public is no longer just an exercise in self-defense — increasingly it is a soapbox for elevating one’s voice and, just as often, quieting someone else’s, writes Mike McIntire in The New York Times.

This month, armed protesters appeared outside an elections center 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.”

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.”

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-defense.

Regardless of whether there is a right to go armed in public for self-defense, 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.”

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