The dangers of guns at protests are too big to ignore
Unsurprisingly, the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict has exposed some fierce divisions among Americans. On one matter, though, there ought to be renewed consensus: It doesn’t help to have guns displayed at political rallies and protests.
Although the National Rifle Association likes to say that the only thing that can stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun, the Rittenhouse incident shows how making such distinctions in chaotic or violent situations is impossible. Unfortunately, the fog of war is increasingly a reality on American streets.
When the city of Kenosha was convulsed by violent protests last year, Rittenhouse was roaming the streets with an AR-15-style rifle. He said he was there to protect businesses. Others saw him as an aggressor. Tensions flared and Rittenhouse wound up shooting three people (one who was himself armed with a gun) and killing two. This month, a jury unanimously determined that Rittenhouse had defended himself lawfully. But if the encounter had turned out slightly differently, either of the victims could’ve had legitimate self-defense claims.
No one should expect this to be the last such incident. Armed demonstrators have become a disturbingly familiar sight at American protests in recent years. A study by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project and the Everytown for Gun Safety Support Fund documented 560 armed protests over an 18-month period in 2020 and 2021. It found that armed protests are nearly six times as likely to turn violent or destructive as unarmed ones. (Michael Bloomberg, the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, is a backer of Everytown.)
These incidents are taking a significant human toll. When armed militias descended on Louisville, Kentucky, during a protest over the fatal police shooting of Breonna Taylor, three people were injured after an accidental firearm discharge. In Portland last year, a pro-Trump demonstrator was shot and killed after a day of clashes between protesting groups. All told, about one in every 62 protests involving firearms results in a fatality.
The National Rifle Association and its elected allies seem to think that this should be the new normal. They want civilians armed to the teeth in state after state, city after city. As awful as that prospect might be, it is nonetheless gaining traction. Twenty-one states now allow the open and concealed carry of firearms without a permit — a status that gun activists call “constitutional carry.” Six states joined that list this year, most recently Texas in September (despite a majority of residents opposing the legislation).
Absent government intervention, this trend suggests that more incidents like Kenosha are all but inevitable. Authorities need to recognize that protests are an inherently charged situation, and that armed citizens are a threat to the First Amendment rights to free speech and assembly they’re meant to express. State and local governments have many options for restricting firearms at demonstrations that are perfectly compatible with the Second Amendment, including enforcing existing laws against intimidation and menacing, prohibiting armed militias from attending such events, and banning open carry at sensitive places.
They should do everything in their power to enact commonsense reforms — before the next protest leads to the next round of needless bloodshed.