Toting a weapon in a demonstration changes the stakes

An excellent piece at The Stone on “open carry” and the exciting time it is when a bunch of gun-toting fanatics can force law enforcement to back down because law enforcement doesn’t want yet another Waco or Ruby Ridge. Patrick Blanchfield

Earlier this month, in Bunkerville, Nev., representatives of the Bureau of Land Management withdrew from a tense standoff with supporters of Cliven Bundy, a rancher who owes the federal government over $1 million in unpaid fees for allowing his cattle to graze on public land. The hundreds of self-appointed militia and “states’ rights” activists who flocked to support Bundy, many in full tactical gear and openly carrying assault rifles, blockaded a federal interstate and trained their weapons on B.L.M. employees who sought to negotiate with the rancher and his family. Fearful of a pitched gun battle, the B.L.M. departed, leaving Bundy and his supporters to celebrate, emboldened, with a barbecue.

Seriously, now – what does that sound like? It sounds like fucking Boko Haram, that’s what. It sounds like fascism. It sounds like what it is: hundreds of men with guns thwarting a branch of civilian government. This is not something we want.

…as a transaction between the state and citizens decided not by rule of law, nor by vote or debate, but rather by the simple presence of arms, Bunkerville is deeply troubling. Guns publicly brandished by private individuals decided the outcome. For all Bundy’s appeals to constitutional justification, what mattered at the end of the day was who was willing to take the threat of gunplay the furthest.

We don’t want that. It’s the opposite of civilization, and we prefer civilization.

Bunkerville is simply the next step in a trend that has been ramping up for some time. Since the election of Barack Obama, guns have appeared in the public square in a way unprecedented since the turbulent 1960s and ’70s — carried alongside signs and on their own since before the Tea Party elections, in a growing phenomenon of “open carry” rallies organized by groups like the Modern American Revolution and, and in the efforts by gun rights activists to carry assault weapons into the Capitol buildings in New Mexico and Texas (links to video). According to open carry advocates, their presence in public space represents more than just an expression of their Second Amendment rights, it’s a statement, an “educational,” communicative act  — in short, an exercise of their First Amendment freedom of speech. (See this, from the group Ohio Carry, and this Michigan lawsuit.)

No. Guns are not educational and they’re not speech. Go away.

what does it mean, in a democracy that enshrines freedom of speech, to publicly carry a gun as an expression of political dissent? Toting a weapon in a demonstration changes the stakes, transforming a protest from just another heated transaction in the marketplace of ideas into something else entirely. It’s bringing a gun to an idea-fight, gesturing as close as possible to outright violence while still technically remaining within the domain of speech. Like a military “show of force,” this gesture stays on the near side of an actual declaration of war while remaining indisputably hostile. The commitment to civil disagreement is merely provisional: I feel so strongly about this issue, the gun says, that if I don’t get my way, I am willing to kill for it. 

Quite. And I don’t want that.

We should also note that not all symbolic speech is created equal. On the contemporary stage, those bearing guns in protest are most likely to be white, right-leaning, and rural. As the historian Adam Winkler has documented, this represents a more or less direct reversal of the upheavals of the late ’60s and ’70s, when Republican politicians pursued new gun control legislation in response to armed protests by urban African-American leftists. Today, it is those most sheltered from actual state violence — from the day-to-day reality of police brutality — who also feel most threatened by the state, most free to threaten violence against hypothetical violations, and most entitled to opt out of civil discourse by reaching for their weapons. Our racial double standards for who can safely gesture at political violence are enormous. At least before his racism became public, Bundy and his supporters could point assault weapons at federal agents and be lionized as “patriots” by a United States senator and celebrated on Fox, whereas a single New Black Panther standing near a polling station while holding a billy club prompted calls on that same network for former Navy SEALs to show up in force and “fight back.”

In many ways this country is just not sane.


  1. rrede says

    I’m having trouble thinking of ways in which this country’s public discourses, legislative cultures, etc. etc. etc. might be evaluated as “sane.”

    . . . . .

    Nope, not coming up with any.

  2. Blanche Quizno says

    Yeah, and if the gun totin’ fanatics had been BLACK men, there never would have been any of this hanky-wringing, hyperventilating “What shall we do? What shall we do?” hysteria. See what happened to the MOVE members:

    If it’s an armed BLACK group, you drop a freakin’ BOMB on their uppity asses.

    If it’s an armed WHITE group, you respectfully withdraw.

    It’s tradecraft 101 – didn’t you realize??

    There are a few other groups who have successfully rebelled and stood up to the government thanks to force of arms – they’re all white, natch. When they refused to cooperate with the government, the government froze their assets and cut off their utilities. These rednecks didn’t care – they’d buried their money out back underneath the shed and drilled a well. Plus they no doubt had supporters on the outside to bring them supplies. And there they remain:

  3. A. Noyd says

    Some pics from the MOVE bombing. Because I think it’s important to get an idea of the scale of the destruction the US Government considered acceptable in suppressing black activists just 30 years ago.

  4. smrnda says

    This is why I become increasingly disgusted with guns, gun culture, to the point where I’m less and less inclined to support any kind of gun ownership. Am I worried that, without guns, we’d fall to government tyranny? Well, we can’t outgun a tank, so what’s the point? In the end, I don’t want to live in a nation where rule happens at gunpoint.

    “Political power comes from the barrel of a gun.” Amazing, this Chairman Mao quote seems like something you’d see from the NRA.

  5. lpetrich says

    This sort of thing also happened during Bill Clinton’s presidency: Clinton Denounces Militant Militias as False Patriots : Speech: President, in Michigan, calls groups’ ideology a perversion of healthy dissent. He also targets other extremists lured into a culture of anti-government violence. – Los Angeles Times I remember how the right wing hated him as a left-wing autocrat, how they got worked up over scandal after scandal after scandal, even if they were not worth getting worked up over. Just like with Obama’s Presidency.

  6. RJW says

    Is it true that in some US schools, teachers are licensed to carry concealed weapons?

    America’s gun laws seem completely bizarre to citizens of other liberal democracies, perhaps more appropriate for downtown Bogota than an advanced democracy.


    Yes, the ‘defence of liberty’ justification for gun ownership is just ludicrous, considering the efficiency and firepower of modern armies and that our liberties are under far greater threat from cyber space.
    It was a good idea in the late 18th century, not so much in the 21st.
    Two factors distinguish US firearm laws from other Western countries–(1) widespread availability of semi-automatic weapons and (2) the lax laws in regard to handguns. The Australian government banned semi-automatic weapons 20 years ago after a series of appalling mass murders, there have been no incidences of these crimes since.

    BTW I’m a former gun owner, I used to be a farmer and guns were ‘tools of trade’ on the farm, I don’t have an ideological bias either way.

  7. says

    No, I don’t think it’s true. It was proposed after the shoot-up in Connecticut I think, but hardly anyone thought it would be a good idea.

    Listen, America’s gun laws seem completely bizarre to MANY AMERICANS – in fact to most of us. The NRA has money and lobbying clout; it does not have majority support.

  8. Scr... Archivist says

    When I read about this problem I am reminded of the Internet intimidation campaigns that Ophelia has also written about. The carriage of guns is becoming more and more an attempt to take away other people’s rights to free speech and expression. It is another campaign of intimidation.

    Few people may be willing to argue with an armed thug. Even fewer are likely to see that the thugs know they have no winning argument which is why they must use physical threats to get their way. But there might be countermeasures available.

    If they can openly carry weapons, we can openly carry video cameras. We can also practice remaining calm and informed, demonstrating the non-violence that has been held up by American protest movements for decades. That way, when one of the thugs gets fed up with our valid points and high road tactics, he is on record as brandishing or worse. They get no anonymity away from the keyboard like they do online. And with careful presentation of oneself, the person doing the recording can demonstrate that the supposed “provocation” was quite unprovocative. It will take discipline and class, but we’ve shown that before, from the well-dressed, suit-wearing Civil Rights marchers half a century ago to the economically-literate counter-globalization protestors more recently.

    I personally don’t like devices such as Google Glass, but they may end up having good uses.

  9. Billie says

    @Blanche Quizno
    Why do you play the race card in this instance?
    I understand the MOVE disaster might have been racially motivated (I hadn’t heard of it before you mentioned it), but those people in Waco (which I saw live on CNN) were (mostly?) white.
    Ofcourse there are many instances in which the race card has a legitimate place, but by using it whether appropriate or not it becomes a Godwin.

    Further, I think Ophelia also already gave a better argument: “…because law enforcement doesn’t want yet another Waco or Ruby Ridge.”

    Looking at a situation like this from Holland, I’m baffled. I had heard and seen about these militias, but to see that the government even let them in a situation like this is hard to understand.
    To me this looks like civil war, cold civil war, but still.
    I wonder what’s going to be next.

    Maybe one ray of hope might be that this causes enough upheaval for gun law restriction to have better chances. Or am I naive?

  10. rrede says

    An article on “Guns on Campus” legislation.

    I’m hoping to retire from Texas where I teach at a small university in a rural area *before* the Texas Lege makes it legal to carry guns on campus (we had an unintentional gun discharge in our Writing Center years ago–student had gun in her purse, didn’t realize safety was off, never thought about being on campus–luckily nobody was hurt).

  11. RJW says


    One cardinal rule that I learned when handling rifles and shotguns was to never, ever, rely on the ‘safety’, the only safe weapon was one with an open chamber.
    A proliferation of concealed handguns within the general public seems like a prescription for disaster considering the human capacity for suicidal negligence, probably more people will be killed or injured by their own weapons than those of assailants.

  12. iknklast says

    In many ways this country is just not sane.

    Great quote I picked up from Katha Pollitt: “Against much evidence, I continue to believe the American people are not insane.”

    Might be time to give up that belief, though.

  13. Stacy says

    @Billie #10

    @Blanche Quizno
    Why do you play the race card in this instance?

    Blanche is right to mention it. There’s always been a double standard in this country with respect to gun laws, going back to pre-Civil War times. It isn’t beside the point–it is an important part of the story of America’s love affair with guns and one that is usually overlooked.

    Just one example: the Black Panthers armed themselves in the 1960s in Oakland, California, to protect black people from abusive white police officers. The Oakland PD were overtly racist (they recruited whites from the South.) Republican legislators (Governor Ronald Reagan, anyone?) couldn’t pass gun restriction laws fast enough.

    To me this looks like civil war, cold civil war, but still.

    That’s what it looks like to me, too.

  14. Stacy says

    I should have said, “…with respect to armed citizenry.” (But with respect to gun laws too.)

  15. RJW says

    If the majority of Americans are against the present gun laws, why don’t they just vote to change the relevant clause in the Constitution?

  16. Stacy says

    RJW, the U.S. Constitution can’t be changed by vote. It enumerates our rights, and people’s rights shouldn’t be subject to majoritarian rule. Or that’s the idea, anyway.

  17. says

    That is, it can’t be changed by a popular vote; it can only be changed by Congress (which votes aye or nay).

    Why can’t Congress change the 2d Amendment? The NRA, mostly.

    But that’s just words. The truth is I don’t understand it.

  18. RJW says

    @17 & 18

    Thanks, unusual for a liberal democracy, that explains the impasse, I’d assumed that the US Constitution was the people’s business.

    @ 7

    “the U.S. Constitution can’t be changed by vote. It enumerates our rights, and people’s rights shouldn’t be subject to majoritarian rule. Or that’s the idea, anyway.”

    Now, that really is bizarre. So, who determines what rights Americans should or shouldn’t enjoy, if it isn’t the citizens?

  19. beardymcviking says

    In many ways this country is just not sane.

    Yeah, that’s how it looks from over here too. Good luck 🙁

  20. says

    Bizarre? No it isn’t. That’s the whole point of constitutions and similar items (like the UDHR). They’re meant to be somewhat immune to the vagaries and self-interest and corruptions etc of the political process. As for the who, well, in our case it comes out of a revolutionary situation, so the men who drew it up were self-appointed (and thus restricted it to white men, just for a start). The same is true of the French and other constitutions.

  21. RJW says


    “in our case it comes out of a revolutionary situation,” — If you’re a citizen of a nation that was peacefully voted into existence ( albeit by men) the perspective is quite different.
    As long as those people who are responsible for amendments to the US constitution act in good faith all should be well, in the final analysis constitutions are simply documents that depend on political institutions, the Soviet Constitution incorporated many democratic principles which had absolutely no effect whatsoever.

    One disadvantage of democratically amended constitutions is that voters are collectively conservative and often reject quite sensible propositions.

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