I think carrying guns to protests is entirely counterproductive. Indeed, I’m not sold on the general virtues of protesting, which worked for Gandhi and the civil rights marcher, but has a dismal track record on other concerns. But I think people have a perfect right to do it, including with guns, though I also think the secret service is within its rights to ensure that they don’t have a sight line on the president.
But the hysteria about them has been even more ludicrous. Numerous people claim to believe that this makes it likely, even certain, that someone will shoot at the president. This is very silly, because the president is not anywhere most of the gun-toting protesters, who have showed up at all sorts of events. It is, I suppose, more plausible to believe that they might take a shot at someone else. But not very plausible: the rate of crime associated with legal gun possession or carrying seems to be very low. Guns, it turn out, do not turn ordinary people into murderers. They make murderers more effective.
Jason Zengerle at TNR:
This is very silly. Look, just on a basic level, the Secret Service’s capacities aren’t infinite: protecting the president is hard enough in normal circumstances; throw in the job of making sure gun-toting protestors don’t have a sight line on the president, and the agents’ jobs become that much more difficult. Even if the gun-toting protestors whose rights McArdle is defending pose no harm to Obama, keeping a constant eye on them takes up resources–resources the Secret Service might need to thwart people who do mean to do harm to the president.
Then McArdle goes from silly to offensive, writing:
“So perhaps unsurprisingly, when offered the opportunity to put some money down on the proposition that one of these firearms is soon going to be discharged at someone, they all decline.”
Or maybe they just have enough basic decency not to wager on whether or not Obama–or anyone else, for that matter–is going to get shot.
Well, I’m betting on good behavior, which doesn’t seem that offensive to me. Zengerle et. al. are the ones claiming that people openly carrying guns have a significant probability of hauling off and shooting someone for no good reason.
I find that rather offensive, given how little the people saying this sort of thing actually know about the protesters. They may, to be sure, be gun-mad lunatics dying for a chance to shoot some random stranger. Me, I’d expect the gun-mad lunatics are probably carrying their gun concealed somewhere on their person, the better to use it without being stopped. But I don’t know. The point is, neither does the other side. All these confident predictions of impending violence do not, to me, seem to rest on much more than the belief that people who openly carry weapons near a rally must be gun-crazed lunatics who want to intimidate Democrats with threats of violence. This is somewhat circular to say the least.
Zengerle also conflates this with presidential assassination, as have many other commentators. As far as I know, only one chap has been near the president, and he was a publicity stunt. The others seem to be at less august meetings. If a gun nut wants to assassinate a minor Senator or Congressman, he doesn’t need to carry a rifle to a protest somewhere. They’re not that well protected. And also, not that frequently attacked.
Do I think guns should be near Obama? I think that is for the Secret Service to say, and I would support whatever decision they rendered. But we don’t know where this guy was, or if he ever even saw Obama.
Jamelle at The League:
Insofar that liberals are spooked by the presence of firearms at town halls or events attended by the president, it’s not because we believe that firearms possess some magical ability to turn Mild-Mannered Citizen into Bloodthirsty Domestic Terrorist. Indeed, the suggestion (or implication, really) is more than a little dishonest; very few – if any – liberals have argued that the mere presence of a firearm is enough to spark political violence.
No, liberals are worried about the potential for violence because the ingredients seem to be there. Last year’s election revealed the extent to which the conservative base is filled with angry, anxious and scared people desperate for some explanation as to why their lives are falling apart. And since Obama’s inauguration, men like Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck have successfully convinced a large swath of those folks that the Democrats deserve the lions share of the blame, not only for making their lives miserable, but for electing a socialist, communist, Nazi, America-hating liberal who wants nothing more than to take what’s rightfully theirs (read: America) and redistribute it to minorities, gays and illegal immigrants.
Now, for the vast majority of these people, this is almost certainly a symbolic belief. If push came to shove – would admit that Obama probably isn’t the second coming of Joseph Mengele, and isn’t trying to off grandma in a desperate attempt to save money. For them, this really is just something pleasurable to tell themselves about their enemies, and not something to actually act on. For a very small minority however, these fears are completely – and terrifyingly – real. In a very real sense, they are cloistered and isolated from reality. They sincerely believe that Barack Obama has usurped the presidency, and that the United States is well on the road to a totalitarian dictatorship. What’s more, their fears are bolstered by a steady stream of misinformation and fear-mongering, some of it from fringe talk-radio hosts, and some of it from prominent Republican politicians.
Rufus at Grad Student Madness:
But, again, I’m not worried that the stupid asshat with the “blood of tyrants” poster is going to get a few shots off, or even try to. I’d be willing to bet money that none of the geeks showing off their guns at these rallies will try to use them. There have been a good number of assassinations in American history, but they were never done by people who came in telegraphing “Look at me! I’ve got a gun! Ask me about Ron Paul!”
A lot of commenters seem sure that having a legal gun around substantially increases the likelihood that someone will, in a moment of rage, shoot someone–so sure that they are clearly convinced I am a lunatic for even suggesting otherwise. I understand the intuition, and maybe it’s right. But the evidence for the proposition is not all that strong.
First of all, as it shows in the articles I linked earlier, something like 90% of homicides are committed by people with criminal records, i.e. people who probably cannot legally own a gun. A lot of the rest are committed by juveniles, or mentally unstable people, who also cannot legally own a gun.
It is perfectly true that adding a gun to a dispute involving violent criminals increases the likelihood that someone will be shot. But violent criminals are not like the rest of us. They have very poor impulse control, and, well, a demonstrated willingness to use violence. They also are not likely to apply for a permit before packing heat.
Murder is not something that usually just happens, even among family members. The people who do it are usually abnormal in some way, and it shows. For all the fears that allowing concealed carry would lead to murderous road rage and bar fights, these incidents have failed to materialize. I have managed to find one murder in Florida that was even arguably the result of having a gun available in a heated moment–the few others were either clearly premeditated, or involved a weapon other than a handgun. Given how small the number is, as far as I can determine, the good done by defensive uses of concealed weapons would virtually have to outweigh the harm, since several concealed carry holders have stopped violent crimes.
UPDATE: Jason Zengerle:
She thinks liberals should stop demonizing those people who do bring guns to Obama events (although, contra McArdle, people brought guns to two Obama events, not just one, last week); I’m willing to grant her the point that the people openly bearing arms at Obama events probably aren’t going to try to take a shot at him, but my main concern is that their presence at these events makes the job of the Secret Service that much harder–and therefore increases the risk that the Secret Service won’t be able to stop someone (presumably carrying a concealed weapon) who does want to try to assassinate the president. McArdle never really bothers to address my point, although she does propose the compromise that if liberals stop demonizing people who bring guns to presidential events, then those people will stop bringing guns to presidential events. Deal!
There’s one thing about McArdle’s post, though, that’s just too bizarre not to comment on–and that’s the strange weight she continues to give to betting. In her original post, McArdle argued that since no one who says these gun-toting protestors pose a threat is willing to wager $500 with her that one of them will try to shoot Obama, they don’t really believe what they’re saying. I said this was an offensive argument, to which McArdle replies:
“Well, I’m betting on good behavior, which doesn’t seem that offensive to me. Zengerle et. al. are the ones claiming that people openly carrying guns have a significant probability of hauling off and shooting someone for no good reason.”
Is this really that hard to understand? People very seldom bet on something they don’t actually want to happen; if and when they do make that sort of bet, it’s usually as an emotional hedge about something that’s not that important (like the NCAA tournament bracket I fill out every year that has UNC losing in an early round so that, if that does come to pass, my correct bracket will cushion the blow of UNC’s loss). So the fact that no one is willing to enter into a contract with McArdle under which Obama being shot nets them $500 from McArdle is hardly proof of lack of conviction on their part. I think McArdle really needs to come up with a better test for determining what’s a real belief and what’s a symbolic belief.
UPDATE #2: McArdle responds to Zengerle:
On the other hand, lots of things make it harder for the Secret Service to do their job. Protesting is much harder on the Secret Service–almost certainly harder than one guy openly carrying a gun, because the protesters are a crowd of people who have to be watched constantly for suspicious movements. Should we ban protesting? Or force the people who do it off the premises and into a park eight blocks away?
Of course not. Expression in a free society is important–important enough even to let us risk the president’s life, as we are indisputably doing every time we allow a protest, or for that matter a crowd, near him. You can say, well, free speech is really important, and carrying a gun isn’t, but that’s begging the question. I’m going to stop discussing this after the post, because what it comes down to is liberals saying, “Conservatives with guns make me extraordinarily anxious and upset,” and clearly, they’re right. Nonetheless. Carrying a gun is clearly an attempt to make some sort of political statement, though we may not know what–rather like flag burning. And the supreme court takes a very dim view of “Fighting words” type excuses to limit constitutional rights.
Rather like flag burning, it shouldn’t happen, even though you’ve a perfect right to do this. The problem with taking a narrow position is that everyone wants to push you into the broader position. It’s easier to argue with the opposite of your position than a halfhearted compromise. And making narrow arguments in the face of towering rage and anxiety seems, well, kind of wussy.
UPDATE #3: Will Wilkinson weighs in
Zengerle answers Wilkinson and McArdle
Chris Bodenner at Sully’s place
UPDATE #4: Doug J.
UPDATE #5: E.D. Kain at The League
Via Patrick Appel, Thoreau
UPDATE #6: Via John Cole, Thomas Levenson
UPDATE #7: Michelle Goldberg and Megan McArdle at Bloggingheads