People bringing guns to locations of Obama speeches. NRA: no comment

August 17, 2009 | By | 16 Replies More

The AP reports that increasing numbers of people are bringing guns to locations of Obama speeches. These well-armed citizens include several with assault-type weapons. The article ends with the reporters note that the National Rifle Association offered “no comment.”

I’m just amazed that it is legal to hang around near a high-profile political event with a gun.  Next thing you know, the Supreme Court is going to declare bearing weapons as a form of speech.

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Category: Current Events, hypocrisy, Politics

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

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  1. Edgar Montrose says:

    There will always be people who do things "because they can", even when doing so is ill-advised. The effect is invariably that they make things difficult for others who exercise their rights in more appropriate ways.

    To address the specific issue at hand: temporarily deputize these people into the Secret Service. Formally bestow upon them the patriotic duty of providing the "second tier of protection" for the President and for the Secret Service agents. Limit them to an "outer perimeter", and charge them with keeping an eye on the crowd (and each other). Believe me, some of them will take it VERY seriously.

  2. BJ says:

    Well, wait a minute. I'm not so sure that it's not a free speech issue. I think they very clearly intend to communicate something by way of their actions. The argument could be made that actions can constitute "speech" and therefore be eligible for protection under the first amendment. Through the Supreme Court's ruling in US v. Eichman, the Court held that flag burning was a form of protected speech. This type of situation might be considered in a similar light.

    Additionally, those carrying the guns explicitly cite their 2nd amendment rights to keep (and bear) arms. I think that there's a large body of writings from several of the framers of the constitution that would provide support for the position that these people seem to be taking- i.e. that the government has infringed upon too many rights, that the citizens feel they are being pushed to the limit, and have been unable to get their representatives to notice or remedy the problems as they see them. In fact, here's a quote from Thomas Jefferson that was referenced by William Kostric, the first guy to bring the gun to the town hall meeting area:

    God forbid we should ever be 20 years without such a rebellion. The people cannot be all, & always well informed. The part which is wrong will be discontented in proportion to the importance of the facts they misconceive. If they remain quiet under such misconceptions it is a lethargy, the forerunner of death to the public liberty. We have had 13. states independent 11. years. There has been one rebellion. That comes to one rebellion in a century & a half for each state. What country before ever existed a century & a half without a rebellion? & what country can preserve it's liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance? Let them take arms. The remedy is to set them right as to facts, pardon & pacify them. What signify a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots & tyrants. It is it's natural manure.

    If I'm reading Jefferson correctly, he seems to be suggesting that those who would take up arms may be factually incorrect as to the politics of the day, but the remedy for that is to inform the public as to the truth, and thereby "pacify them". He also seems to recognize that public passivity in the face of politics with which one strongly disagrees is "the forerunner of death to the public liberty."

    So it seems to me that they probably have the legal right to carry weapons to these rallies, both under the Constitution and the relevant state laws. One thing I would like to point out though, can you imagine what would have happened under the Bush 43 administration? If the protesters that were being forced into designated "free speech zones" would have arrived to the protest carrying weapons, I think the Bush administration would have rapidly (and perhaps disastrously) escalated the situation. I think it shows admirable restraint from the Obama administration not to over-react to this.

    Would I do it? No. Do I think that they have the right to do it? Absolutely.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      BJ: I was speaking tongue in cheek about the free speech aspect of carrying a gun to a political event. I'm sure you're correct that they would rely on the 2nd Amendment as justification for carrying their guns. But then again, I'm sure that the 2nd Amendment doesn't let you walk up to the President inside the meeting space while you are carrying a loaded gun. Therefore, the issue seem to be a matter of degree. How close should people be able to get to the President while carrying weapons. In my opinion, anyone close enough to threaten the safety of the President with their weapon is much too close.

  3. Edgar Montrose says:

    I think that it needs to be stressed that none of the people carrying firearms were actually inside the meeting space. All were outside in open areas, where they and others were protesting various causes.

    I am all for asserting one's Constitutional Rights. I am also for the application of common sense. I'll leave it to others to judge just how much of each was demonstrated in these situations.

  4. BJ writes:—"Through the Supreme Court’s ruling in US v. Eichman, the Court held that flag burning was a form of protected speech."

    Because the flag is a symbol. A picture of a firearm is a symbol, a firearm is not.

    Your take on Jefferson is essentially correct, but that in no way rejects local control of firearms, which is the rule by which the framers drafted the 2nd Amendment. It was intended to prevent the federal government from disarming state militias, which were comprised of common citizens, but made no such claim that the local sheriff couldn't lay down rules with respect to where and when firearms could be taken and for what purpose.

    Taking guns to political rallies has from time to time and place to place been subject for local control. Times have changed. The recognition of the need for such control has outgrown the local. This is just a matter of pragmatism.

    As right as the Founding Fathers were on many things, some of them quite prescient, they weren't demigods who could do no wrong and they were speaking on behalf of their times. Things are arguably different.

  5. BJ says:

    Mark-

    You're correct, and I don't think there's any dispute that localities have rights to regulate the manner in which firearms may be used or carried.

    I disagree, however, that a firearm is not a symbol. I think you have to admit, there is certainly a significant symbolic value attached. When you see a firearm, does your mind jump first to the Columbine massacre, or to the My Lai massacre? Do you think of terror and chaos, or law and order? Would you react the same way to a group of revolutionaries in a third world country brandishing weapons as you would to a squad of jack-booted riot control officers in the U.S.A doing the same thing at a protest march?

    We also agree that a flag is a symbol. To some, it symbolizes patriotism and stands as a tribute to all of the good that has been done in its name. To others, it has a symbolic meaning that is completely the opposite- it is symbolic of imperialism, genocide, and domination.

    Both "gun" and "flag" in and of themselves, are neutral items. The symbolic meaning we attach to each determines how we react when we see each of these things.

    Things are arguably different now, as you point out. But I would also argue that some things never change. Many of the founding fathers were well versed in history, and had seen repeated instances of tyrannical governments terrorizing the more-or-less innocent citizenry. They wished to maintain the capacity of the common people to revolt, explicitly recognizing in the Declaration of Independence that whenever Governments fail to secure the natural rights of the citizenry, that "it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security."

    I think that is precisely the symbolism with which these protesters wish to imbue their actions. Economic dislocation has always given rise to unrest, and this time is no different. Given that there has actually been serious discussion in the mainstream press about secession of various states or regions, (or of various states asserting their 10th amendment rights more forcefully), it seems to me that the times now are perhaps not that different than they were a couple of centuries ago. A Zogby poll last year found a surprisingly high level of support for the right to secede.

  6. BJ

    I understand what you're getting at, but I'm a bit more narrow about such things—a flag is nothing but a symbol, it doesn't "double up" as anything else and wasn't made for any other purpose.

    People attach symbolism to all sorts of things and certainly they attach symbolism to guns, but that's not what the gun was made for to begin with. All the examples you give, yes, have symbolic import, but the context provides it, not the objects themselves.

    I make this distinction because, to me, it is sloppy when trying to accomplish one thing when the goal is made murky by the insistence of a symbolism not universally held by all involved. While I might show up at a rally carrying a weapon to exercise my (symbolic) adherence to a form of American liberty, the same is not true for the secret service agent who is carrying a weapon in case he/she must use it to protect the president—and while protecting the president may be construed in symbolic terms, it is in itself not a symbol.

    This becomes a semantic quagmire after a bit. I prefer to see objects for what they are and attach symbolism solely to the people using them, which in this instance makes a sharp distinction between a flag and a firearm.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Mark: It would make the world a lot tidier if things could be divided into A) symbols and B) non-symbols, but I'm increasingly seeing this as an artificial distinction that misses out on the richness of the ubiquitous signaling and displaying in which we all engage. Nor do I think that it's useful to bifurcate the world into intentional versus non-intentional displays.

      I think that the guy who shows up, not clean shaven, wearing military clothing (especially if not a member of the military), chewing tobacco, wearing a pin bearing the image of Johnny Cash, having arrived in a Hummer, using grammar like "she don't" and holding a working AK-47 is saying all kinds of things. He is intensely broadcasting to those around him who he is, just as all of the rest of us are broadcasting who we are by our choices in clothes, cars, houses, jewelry, choice of music, food and everything else we display.

      I suppose what I'm suggesting is that much of what we show to the world doubles up. Much of it is not intentionally and consciously thought out to be certain type of display–perhaps we just think that it would be "cool" to wear this shirt or that make-up, or have your hair cut a certain way, or to have no facial hair or talk a certain way or walk a certain way or be seen in a particular section of town.

      It's intense out there, no matter who you are, no matter what you are thinking about (or not thinking about) as you go out there and display for the world. In short, I think of the gun carrying as something occurring along an x-y plane where things can be useful and intentional messages, or not useful and not meant to be a message, or anything in-between.

      I think these guys with guns are, to a greater or lesser extent, both thereby saying something AND doing something.

  7. Erich,

    Which is all well and good as far as it goes, but when you start getting into issues of what constitutes "protected" speech, you must make such distinctions, otherwise you lose the rationalism that backs practical law and reasonable conduct. Suddenly Columbine becomes a First Amendment issue rather than what it was, which was a bus wreck of supervisory negligence regarding a couple of disaffected teenagers. Which is why the book or film of the event qualifies as speech—because it a purposefully designed commentary—and the act itself cannot be justified as legitimate simply because all demonstrations are somehow equal and symbolic. This is the ultimate consequence of a full embrace of deconstructionism.

    The guy you describe is saying all kinds of things, true, but the nature and intent of his message is still going to be partially if not largely context driven, If he shows up like that to join of group of like-attired people who are going groundhog hunting, it makes one kind of statement. The same attire at the funeral of a fallen soldier says something entirely different. In the first instance, not having a functional firearm is absurd, while at the second it is a violation. The weapon does not change, only the way it is brandished.

    In the case of a flag, it begins existence entirely as a symbol and thus can be nothing else—and yes, it's meaning changes with context as well, but the context never strips it of its condition as a symbol.

  8. Erich Vieth says:

    Michael Sirota of Salon believes that those guys displaying guns near political debates are saying something loud and clear, and it isn't good for the democracy:

    And so we face a choice that has nothing to do with healthcare, gun ownership or any other hot-button issue that protesters of both parties are fighting over. It is a choice about democracy itself — a choice that comes down to the two axioms best articulated by, of all people, Mao Zedong.

    One option is willful ignorance: We can pretend the ferment is unimportant, continue allowing the intimidation and ultimately usher in a dark future where "political power grows out of the barrel of a gun."

    Better, though, is simply making public political events firearm-free zones, just like schools and stadiums.

    http://www.salon.com/opinion/feature/2009/08/22/s

  9. Jay Fraz says:

    Strange, my only thoughts on this matter are really simple.

    Brandishing weapons near president = bad.

    Seriously, I can understand the 'speech' issues, but how many have we had gun downed in total?

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Jay: I lived through the sixties as a youngster and even those terrible assassinations were far too much. But then it continued, including extremely public assassination attempts on Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, and probably hundreds of unpublicized attempts and half-baked schemes regarding every person who has ever served as President.

      In my opinion, letting people display guns near political debates is not a good thing. It's not, for instance, allowing them to let off steam. It is allowing them to stifle speech by displaying their thuggery. Who wants to vigorously debate or even carry a sign when some anonymous stern-looking guy is carrying a gun 10 feet away?

  10. Edgar Montrose says:

    "Brandishing weapons near president = bad."

    No question about that. But let's be clear: nobody was brandishing a weapon. There is a big difference between carrying a weapon and brandishing a weapon.

    I do not seek to defend those who carry firearms at the President's events. I think that it is inappropriate, dangerous, and ultimately counterproductive. But I do not want to see this made out to be something that it is not.

  11. Erich,

    I do not disagree with the point you're making, but—

    The same effect can be achieved by someone standing nearby with an ax-handle or a baseball bat or even just a clipboard, writing things down. It is the use to which people put these things that turn them into elements of a symbol, not the things themselves.

    It is not uncommon—in fact it's all too common—for people to be searched at rock concerts and disallowed objects confiscated or the person told to take it back to their car. Why not the same standard for political rallies? You put up a great big sign at each event: WORDS ARE THE ONLY WEAPONS ALLOWED HERE. ANYTHING ELSE, LEAVE IT AT HOME. Then do an admissions search.

    In short, we don't have to tolerate crap.

  12. Erich Vieth says:

    Thought experiment: What would the authorities do if a group of men wearing turbans showed up at an American political gathering, also displaying guns? What about a group of a dozen African-American men holding AK-47s? How many minutes before the entire lot of them would be tossed into jail for "resisting arrest"?

  13. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Does anyone believe that the targets of these gun proponents are their fellow citizens? I think it's clear that the target of their message is the federal government. One thing that the economic downturn has brought about is a burgeoning awareness of the importance of class in America. People are waking up and realizing that there seems to be two sets of rules- one for the wealthy or politically elite, and one for the rest of us.

    The people bringing guns to these town halls are not intending to chill free speech. In fact, I suspect that they respect free speech rights more than most. As Mark points out, if weapons dampen free speech rights, then where do we draw the line? Would the mere numerical superiority of one's opposition at one of these events then be enough to argue that your free speech rights were violated?

    But again, I think the point worth making is this: these protesters are intending to send a very specific message to their government. It's unfortunate that others feel threatened by that, but one does not have a right to feel free from fear at all times. You can fault them for perhaps being unclear in their message, but I think it's a valid message that they are attempting to communicate. In fact, the Thomas Jefferson letter referenced above containing the famous "liberty tree" quotation was in reaction to the "anarchy" in Massachusetts, speaking of Shay's Rebellion. Shay's rebellion was an armed revolt of poor farmers, who were being crushed under the weight of debt and taxes. The parallels between that time and today are striking, and I think that the protesters very much would like to draw attention to that. William Kostric, the first protester spotted with a gun, implored people to examine the context of the Jefferson quotation that he was referencing with his sign when he was interviewed on Hardball with Chris Matthews. Of course, the media can't or won't present the full context, so it's incumbent upon us to research it if we wish to understand what it is that motivates the protesters. Simply writing them off as typical right-wing gun nuts does nothing to advance anyone's understanding of the situation.

    Erich- as to your thought experiment, if history is any guide, the authorities would infiltrate them and possibly kill them.

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