Let me state from the get-go
that I'm no opponent of gun ownership (got my first rifle at the age
of 12 and am still a crack shot). But something weird is going on when
you have guys wandering around a political rally or protest site with
pistols strapped to their thighs, or semi-automatic assault rifles strapped
brazenly to their backs, as has been happening outside of venues where
President Obama is speaking.
Before we get to the legal
issues here, I just want to paint you a mental picture:
Take yourself back to the time
when George W. Bush was president and Dick Cheney was Vice President.
Both men were barnstorming around the country in those years, either
ginning up support for their pointless war in Iraq or campaigning for
Republicans in Congressional races, or for their own re-election. The
response of police in charge of crowd control at these events--always
the same--was dependent upon who was lining the streets. If there were
people sporting signs that backed the administration, they were left
alone. If, however, it was someone wearing something like an "Impeach
Bush" T-shirt, or carrying a sign saying "US Out of Iraq"
or some other critical statement, he or she was given a choice: move
to a fenced in "Free Speech Zone" out of sight of the presidential
or vice-presidential entourage, or face arrest.
I investigated and wrote
about what was happening back then, and learned that
the order to clear protesters away from wherever the president or vice
president would be was being made by the Secret Service and the White
House advance team. As I was told at the time by Paul Wolf, a
deputy police chief for Allegheny County, PA, where Bush had come in
2003, the decision to pen in Bush critics at that event originated with
the Secret Service. "Generally, we don't put protesters inside
enclosures," Wolf said. "The only time I remember us
doing that was a Ku Klux Klan rally, where there was an opposing rally,
and we had to put up a fence to separate them."
Of the September, 2003 Bush event, he said, "What the Secret Service
does is they come in and do a site survey, and say, 'Here's a
place where the people can be, and we'd like to have any protesters
be put in a place that is able to be secured.' Someone, say our
police chief, may have suggested the place, but the request to fence
them in comes from the Secret Service. They run the show."
Now I don't have to tell you that if those protesters who were being
moved away from a political rally or motorcade back then had been visibly
armed, much less armed with loaded assault rifles, they would not have
simply been herded into a "Free Speech" pen. They'd have been
arrested, probably tased into the bargain, their guns would have been
confiscated, and they might well have found themselves on a flight to
What's different now?
For one thing, we aren't seeing the "Free Speech Zones" at
Obama events. Clearly the Secret Service is not being instructed by
White House operatives to have local police cart away protesters. That's
a good thing. The Bush/Cheney tactic against protest was a gross violation
of the First Amendment right of free speech and free association. For
another, it seems like the Secret Service is letting local police make
the decisions about who poses a threat to the president--and in some
states, like upstate New York, Colorado and Arizona, for example--those
local police seem perfectly comfortable with having armed citizens in
me just state for the record that this is sheer madness.
been to a lot of demonstrations in my life, and one thing that has been
pretty standard is that police have banned the use of wooden sticks
for holding up signs. The reason is obvious: They are afraid that sticks
might end up being used as weapons in any confrontation, whether with
them, or perhaps with angry opponents of whatever is being protested.
So protesters use cardboard tubes instead.
How is it that sticks or baseball bats can be banned at rallies and
protests, but not guns?
I'm not talking here about the right to bear arms. People have the right
under the Constitution to own guns, and various states like Virginia,
for example, have passed laws even allowing them to be worn into public
places like restaurants. But police also have a duty to protect the
public, and the right to carry guns is not universal. They cannot, for
instance, be carried near schools in any jurisdiction I know of. Does
that violate the Constitution? Apparently not, according to the Supreme
Why aren't people allowed to carry guns near or in schools? You tell
me. Clearly it's because there have been some nasty incidents involving
people with guns blowing away kids at schools. It's not that people
haven't killed kids in other settings, but there's an emotional, visceral
response to seeing an armed person near a playground, so we outlaw it.
It would scare parents, scare kids and scare teachers, and that's not
an environment we want for our kids.
So what about political events? Don't we want political events
to be free from intimidation? The essence of a free society is
the right to go to a public political event and express one's support
for or to protest against some political figure or political policy.
That can involve having to confront people with an opposite perspective,
which can get tense and nasty, but the conflict is verbal, not physical,
and of course if it gets physical, the police intervene, as they should--hopefully
Guns at such events introduce a different factor. If police--and the
Secret Service--allow guns at political events, then members of the
public have to fear for their safety and their very lives. No amount
of police scrutiny can prevent a gun-holder, whether based upon a plan
of action or in the heat of the moment, from suddenly firing into a
crowd. That reality is certain to deter some people from speaking their
mind, and others from even showing up.
Furthermore, just as we've had plenty of gun violence at schools, which
has led to state and local bans everywhere on gun-toting near schools,
we've also had our share of political assassinations and assassination
attempts, usually by people who brought guns to political events.