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

guns at town hallsLet 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.

Think back a minute to all those rallies and gatherings where President Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney spoke just a few years ago. Back then, the Secret Service got local police to herd protesters outside events into what they called, with no sense of irony, “Free Speech Zones.”  Forget guns. Just an “Impeach Bush” T-shirt or a sign saying “U.S. Out of Iraq” was enough to have cops offer you a choice: Move to a fenced in zone, or be arrested.

I’m sure we’ll all agree that if any of those protesters had been visibly armed, 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. (On the other hand, does anyone think that if those armed citizens wore turbans, that they’d be allowed to parade around with their weapons?)

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.

Why aren’t people allowed to carry guns near or in schools?  Clearly it’s because there have been some nasty incidents involving people with guns blowing away kids at schools. Armed people 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 change everything. 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. And that’s not even mentioning the possibility of assassination attempts.

Am I crazy, or is this all just nuts?

Dave Lindorff is a Philadelphia-area journalist. His latest book is “The Case for Impeachment” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006). His work is available at www.thiscantbehappening.net