Guns and Protests
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Guns and Protests

Why do people show up at public rallies or demonstrations fully armed?

Until this past June this question might have seemed largely irrelevant for us here on the Olympic Peninsula–things to consider more in the abstract because they happen somewhere else.

Let me be very clear: we all need to be asking this and related questions and probing for answers, and we need to be asking them not just because we’ve had a local incident but because this is happening at all, anywhere in our country.

Here’s a reality check:

  • Thirty-six states, including Washington, are open-carry states; without a permit, you can walk around with a rifle slung across your chest or shoulder, a pistol strapped on your hip.
  • In many of these states, Washington included, there is no law against bringing your weapons to a public gathering–e.g, to demonstrations protesting police brutality, racial injustice, or having firearms at protest demonstrations.
  • In many of these states, Washington included, local jurisdictions are either barred completely or severely restricted from enacting ordinances to restrict the carrying of weapons at protest demonstrations.

The short answer to the question “Why do people show up at public rallies or demonstrations fully armed?” is:  Because they can.  But that leaves wide open the question of whether they should.

Over the past few weeks, the nation-wide (world-wide) protests over police brutality have underscored the yawning cultural and political gap that divides those demanding serious change and those who insist it’s not needed.  It’s the gap that separates those who, on the one hand, know–have lived or witnessed–the long, well-documented history of systemic racism, excessive, unjustified use of force, and abuse of power by law enforcement officials, and those, on the other, who minimize the problem, deny it exists at all, or see any questioning of law enforcement practices or procedures as an existential threat to law and order.

It’s the gap between those who focus on the issue of police brutality and those who focus on rioting and looting.

It’s the gap that separates those whose first inclination is to protest peacefully against police brutality and those whose first thought is to “arm up” just in case disorder and violence break out and law enforcement needs “help.”

We are fortunate, locally, to have a police force and a sheriff’s department that are competent, responsible, and imbued organizationally with an ethos of professionalism based on respect for the laws they’re charged with enforcing as part of our constitutional democracy.  Many are “sworn officers”–they take an oath to support the Constitution of the United States, their state, and the laws of their agency’s jurisdiction. They are responsible for ensuring the safety and quality of life of the communities they serve. If and when they need the help of private citizens, they will ask, which doesn’t necessarily mean those deputized will be entitled to “arm up” and use lethal force.  It’s not our local law enforcement agencies that concern me.

When someone undertakes law enforcement in a community without legal authority, when they decide it’s up to them to “keep things under control” by threat of force–lethal force–because they don’t think the legal agencies are up to the task, there’s a term for that: vigilante.  We can quibble over whether the term really only applies to one who actually uses force extra-legally in this context, but the pretext and the impetus are the same.  It’s private citizens “arming up” and attending a peaceful protest that should concern us all.

We have a long history of vigilantism in this country, and it is not one to be proud of.  Movies, television, many video games, and a lot of social media sites often glorify vigilantism and cast vigilantes as necessary, heroic figures.  It’s a morally simplistic rendition…and it’s fantasy, not historical reality.

Right now, we–all of us–need to be crystal clear about what’s fantasy and what’s real.

How do we do that?

First, by facing some hard facts:

  • We are no more unified here than anywhere else. Toxic tribalism–the extreme “us versus them” mindset–is just as pervasive here as anywhere.
  • We’re kidding ourselves if we think we’ve seen the last instance of people deciding to “arm up” and go to a peaceful protest because they heard antifa was coming to town.
  • It is only a matter of time before this kind of behavior becomes the norm (many would say it already is).
  • It is only a matter of time (here, because it’s already happened elsewhere) before someone points their weapon and, intentionally or accidently, fires it.
  • It is only a matter of time before someone protesting peacefully, or merely observing the demonstration, is seriously injured or killed as a result (here, because it’s already happened elsewhere).

Second, I recommend that any person or group who wants to provide protection to keep a peaceful protest from descending into disorder, violence or mayhem, first contact the local law enforcement agencies.  Also contact the people putting on the demonstration to let them know ahead of time that you intend to be there and why.   If you must openly carry a weapon as a “show of force,” don’t bring any ammunition.  You might also ask local law enforcement about the legality of “brandishing” your weapon, whether it’s loaded or not, in such circumstances.

Third, I strongly recommend that our municipal and county officials actively pursue efforts to create a community dialogue on this and related issues now.  Encouraging such a dialogue is not a “knee-jerk” reaction to recent events–it’s long, long overdue.  Yes, some strongly held views will surface, but what is desperately needed now is the opportunity to express those views in a non-threatening environment—discussions facilitated by people trained specifically to do that when it involves complex, contentious, emotionally volatile issues.

The dust is not going to settle on these issues.

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