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‘Armed speech’ In the US, the presence of guns is curbing protesters’ voice

“It’s disappointing that we ended up in that state in our country,” said Kevin Thompson, executive director of the Museum of Science & History in Memphis, Tennessee, where armed protesters led to the cancellation of an LGBTQ event in September. “What I saw was a group of people who didn’t want to enter into any kind of dialogue and just wanted to impose their beliefs.”

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A New York Times Analysis of more than 700 armed demonstrations found that about 77 percent of them openly carried guns represented right-wing views such as opposition to LGBTQ rights and access to abortion, hostility to racial justice rallies, and support for the former president’s lie Donald Trump from winning the 2020 election.

The records, from January 2020 to last week, were compiled by the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project, a non-profit organization that tracks political violence around the world. The times also interviewed witnesses to other, smaller-scale incidents not captured in the records, including encounters with armed people during indoor public gatherings.

Anti-government militias and right-wing culture fighters like the Proud Boys attended a majority of the protests, the data showed. More than 100 events erupted in violence and often involved fistfights with opposing groups, including left-wing activists such as antifa.

Republican politicians are generally more tolerant of openly armed supporters than Democrats, who are more likely to be on the other side of those with guns, the data suggests. In July, for example, men with handguns confronted Beto O’Rourke, then the Democratic nominee for governor of Texas, during a campaign stop in Whitesboro and warned that he was “not welcome in this town.”

Republican officials or candidates appeared at 32 protests where they were on the same side as those with guns. Only two protests identified Democratic politicians taking the same position as the armed ones.

At times, Republican officials carried guns: Washington State Representative Robert Sutherland carried a gun on his hip while protesting COVID-19 restrictions in Olympia in 2020. guns after us because we went fishing. We will see what a revolution looks like.”

The occasional occurrence of armed civilians at demonstrations or government functions is not new. In the 1960s, the Black Panthers displayed guns in public when protesting police brutality. Militia groups, sometimes armed, rallied against federal agents involved in violent standoffs in Ruby Ridge, Idaho, and Waco, Texas, in the 1990s.

But the frequency of these incidents exploded in 2020, with conservative backlash against public health measures to combat the coronavirus and response to the sometimes violent rallies following the killing of George Floyd. Today, in some parts of the country with permissive gun laws, it’s not uncommon to see people with military-style handguns or rifles at protests of all kinds.

For example, at least 14 such incidents have occurred since May in and around Dallas and Phoenix, including outside an FBI field office to condemn Trump’s search and elsewhere in support of abortion rights. In New York City and Washington, D.C., where gun laws are strict, there were none—although numerous demonstrations took place during the same period.

Gun rights advocates argue that banning guns at protests would violate the right to carry firearms for self-defense. Jordan Stein, a spokesperson for Gun Owners of America, pointed to Kyle Rittenhouse, a teenager who was acquitted last year of shooting three people during a chaotic demonstration in Kenosha, Wisconsin, where he had walked the streets with a rifle in military style.

“At a time when protests often turn into riots, honest people need a means of protecting themselves,” he said.

In addition to self-defense, Stein said freedom of speech and the right to bear a gun are “fundamental principles” and that “Americans should be able to carry guns while exercising their First Amendment rights, whether that means going to church or a peaceful meeting”.

Others argue that openly carrying firearms at public gatherings, especially when there is no apparent reason for self-defense, can have a debilitating effect, leading to restricted activity, suppressed opinions, or officials quitting out of fear and frustration.

In a landmark 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Supreme Court ruled that the Second Amendment established a basic right to carry guns for legal purposes, such as self-defense in the home. It went further in a decision in June that lifted New York’s restrictions on concealed handgun permits, granting the right to carry firearms in public.

But the court in Heller also made it clear that gun rights were not unlimited and that the ruling did not invalidate laws prohibiting “carrying firearms in sensitive places.” That caveat was reiterated in a concurring opinion in the New York case.

Even some hard-line gun rights advocates are uncomfortable with armed people at public protests. Alan Gottlieb, founder of the Second Amendment Foundation, shared The Washington Times in 2017 that “if you’re wearing it to make a political point, we won’t support that”.

“Firearms serve a purpose,” he said, “and the target is not a mouthpiece.”

There is no evidence that the drafters of the Constitution intended for Americans to take up arms during civil debate — or to intimidate people of differing opinions. That happened in September at the Memphis museum, when people with guns showed up to protest a planned dance that concluded a summer series about the history of the LGBTQ community in the South.

Although the party was billed as “family-friendly,” conservatives on local talk radio claimed that children would be at risk. (The museum said the planned activities were acceptable for all ages.) As armed men in masks milled outside, the panicked staff canceled all programs and evacuated the property.

Thompson, the director, said he and his board were now grappling with gun-carrying laws, which were relaxed by state lawmakers last year.

“It’s a different time,” he said, “and it’s something we have to learn to navigate.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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Merry

Merry C. Vega is a highly respected and accomplished news author. She began her career as a journalist, covering local news for a small-town newspaper. She quickly gained a reputation for her thorough reporting and ability to uncover the truth.

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