This we know: Black or brown people gathering in the streets or at the statehouse with rifles and body armor would not be tolerated.
They would not be allowed to yell in the face of police officers.
They would not be referred to as “very good people” by a sitting president.
There would be no debate about First or Second Amendment rights.
There would be arrests. Lots of them.
Let’s just admit that.
And let’s admit this, too: We’ve gotten far too accustomed to the image of white protesters carrying paramilitary-level firearms in public spaces. The presence of guns — often really large guns — at protests has become alarmingly normalized. It is time to take stock of what that means.
Accepting and even expecting to see firearms at protest rallies means that we somehow embrace the threat of chaos and violence. While those who carry say they have no intention of using their weapons, the firepower alone creates a wordless threat, and something far more calamitous if even just one person discharges a round.
If someone were to go rogue, it would be difficult for police to identify a shooter while facing a phalanx of protesters who all have rifles strapped to their shoulders. Distinguishing law enforcement from people dressed as “enforcers” could be tough. During the August 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, the Virginia National Guard tweeted that its troops were wearing “MP” patches on their uniforms so people could sort the military police from the rifle-wielding paramilitary groups that showed up wearing helmets, camouflage and tactical vests.
Accepting the open display of firearms at protests means we can expect an increased militarization of state and local law enforcement agencies seeking to protect their troops.
Accepting the open display of firearms at rallies means we must also admit this confirms a significant cultural shift that collides with norms and current laws. The protesters that stormed the statehouse in Michigan were within their right to carry guns inside the state Capitol under open-carry laws. But their actions were far outside of the comfort zone for many people who work in that building and who dedicate their lives to finding civil solutions to disagreements.
Michigan Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey is a Republican and Second Amendment champion who initially supported challenges to the state’s shutdown order. But in a statement last week, he condemned the use of “intimidation and the threat of physical harm to stir up fear and feed rancor.” There are now discussions about reviewing the laws that allow citizens to carry and display guns inside the Michigan statehouse.
Almost every state has legal tools to crack down on armed militias under laws that prevent the formation of private paramilitaries that are not answerable to civil authorities. Such groups cannot falsely assume police or military roles and are not allowed to provide military training to prepare members for civil disorders. But when heavily armed protesters show up in formation at rallies, they certainly flout these laws.
Is this brazen display of force about the right to own firearms or the right to make armed threats for political purposes? Just asking, because the latter is not a “right” that can be equally asserted. The protests are purportedly about reopening America. A parallel goal is realignment — using the Second Amendment to conduct regular and routine shows of force to intimidate elected officials into enacting a political agenda.
Accepting the display of firearms at protests by some and not others means that we must also accept that some are rewarded with a kind of special citizenship that allows them to be seen as patriotic instead of threatening, and aggrieved instead of aggressive.
If we accept this as normal, it means the country collectively is shrugging its shoulders and co-signing a skewed social contract, in which white-nationalist groups grow in size and influence, as threats against politicians and journalists escalate, and as gun violence and mass shootings continue to rise.
Accepting this increasingly brazen display of guns as normal means an armed political movement is flourishing outside the guardrails of our political system.
This didn’t happen overnight. Advocates for open-carry have been carrying handguns and rifles to department stores, Starbucks and state capitols since 2013 in an effort to normalize firearms in public. The movement is coincidentally aligned with an entertainment trend in which paramilitary forces take center stage in popular video games and TV shows such as HBO’s “Watchmen” and Showtime’s “Homeland.”
Polls show that most Americans prefer a go-slow approach to reopening most businesses. The armed protesters in places such as Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona and North Carolina represent a tiny minority. Some surveys put the most insistent open-now crowd at less than 10 percent. But the weapons make their influence seem larger — and they know that. We see protests punctuated by guns almost every day. It has become routine. We have normalized something that should be shocking.