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OpEdNews Op Eds    H2'ed 8/18/09

When 1st and 2nd Amendment Conflict: Protests, Guns and Double Standards

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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 Guantanamo Bay.

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 the crowds.

Let me just state for the record that this is sheer madness.

I've 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 Court.

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 with even-handedness.

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.

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Dave Lindorff, winner of a 2019 "Izzy" Award for Outstanding Independent Journalism from the Park Center for Independent Media in Ithaca, is a founding member of the collectively-owned, journalist-run online newspaper (more...)

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