It could have been so much deadlier. That may sound like a perverse thing to say about last week’s seditious riot at the U.S. Capitol, in which five people died, including one member of the Capitol Police. But it’s true: If Washington D.C. Was like the 30 states that allow citizens to openly carry loaded long guns on capitol grounds, many more of the rioters would have been armed — and many more lives could have been lost.
This is not a theoretical threat. The FBI recently issued a warning: Law enforcement should be aware of possible armed protests at all 50 state capitols starting this weekend. Which means that officers may soon have to contend with far-right protesters who arrive at the capitol dressed in tactical gear and armed to the teeth, as if they were preparing for war, not a peaceful demonstration.
Armed intimidation is not free speech
This is also not a new threat. We saw it in Michigan, where protestors who were upset with Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s decision to issue a stay-at-home order showed up at the capitol bearing arms, demanded to be let on to the House floor, and reportedly screamed “Heil Whitmer.”.
We saw it in Virginia, where heavily armed gun rights activists hijacked an annual Lobby Day at the state capitol in Richmond.
We saw it in Kentucky, where the state house — which allows guns but bans potential weapons like umbrellas — was taken over by gun-toting militants.
And as the FBI made clear, we are likely to see more of it in the coming days.
Some gun extremists contend that the Second Amendment protects carrying firearms just about anywhere — but they are wrong. As the late Justice Antonin Scalia noted in the District of Columbia v. Heller decision, “nothing in our opinion should be taken to cast doubt on longstanding prohibitions on … Laws forbidding the carrying of firearms in sensitive places such as schools and government buildings.”.
This is simply common sense. Because contrary to what you hear from the gun lobby, open carry of loaded weapons is not free speech — it is armed intimidation, and it has a chilling effect on the First Amendment rights of other citizens. As Garrett Eps wrote in The Atlantic, “The right to bear arms in political debate is not the power to speak for oneself; it is, at least implicitly, the power to silence others.”.
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And it must not be forgotten that guns have the power to silence others for good — which should worry lawmakers in all states that allow open carry. The research shows that visible guns have been found to make people more aggressive; therefore open carry makes it more likely that disagreements will turn into violent conflicts.
That’s exactly what happened this summer in Kenosha, Wisconsin, when a young man carrying a semi-automatic rifle shot three people — two of whom died — during a protest following the police shooting of Jacob Blake.
The danger of open carry is obvious
The shooter in Kenosha considered himself a stalwart supporter of law enforcement, and went to the protests with the intention of helping police officers. But in fact, open carry makes life more dangerous for the people whose actual job it is to keep the peace. David Brown, the former Police Chief of Dallas, put it like this: “We don’t know who the good guy is versus the bad guy when everyone starts shooting.” So, it should come as no surprise that Texas’s open carry law had been opposed by a majority of state police chiefs.
Once upon a time, even leaders of the National Rifle Association seemed to get it. In 2015, the National Rifle Association responded to a Texas rally supporting open carry with a statement describing the practice as “downright weird.” But the NRA has grown more extreme by the year, and in the days leading up to the Capitol riot, organization president Wayne LaPierre urged members to “fight back starting now, you’ll soon face the real threat of having your guns forcibly confiscated” — which is patently false.
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One short-term solution to this clear and present danger is obvious: Lawmakers in the 30 states that allow loaded long guns to be openly carried at and around their capitols should ban this intimidation tactic as soon as possible. Michigan lawmakers did exactly that on Monday, when the state’s Capitol Commission voted unanimously to ban open carry.
Put simply, our nation’s political conversation should not be held at the barrel of a gun. Especially in these times of division and rancor, Americans need the freedom to talk to each other and their lawmakers without fearing for their lives.
John Feinblatt is president of Everytown for Gun Safety. Follow him on Twitter: @JohnFeinblatt.