Columnist

There were a lot of guns at the “March for Our Lives” rally Saturday. Armed law enforcement personnel were everywhere, the ubiquitous presence of weapons contrasting sharply with the participants’ call to end gun violence.

“We will have over 100 local, state and federal agencies monitoring events and making sure that safety and security is paramount,” Chris Rodriguez, director of the D.C. Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency, told me the day before the event. “There is no more important function of government, in my view, than making sure our children are protected. And when they come to their nation’s capital, they can visit in the safest, most secure way possible.”

Kudos to Rodriguez and his assembly of armed forces — D.C. police, U.S. Park Police, Capitol Police, FBI, Secret Service, D.C. National Guard and the other 94-some agencies. No terrorist attacks, no violence reported, not even an arrest for disorderly conduct among the hundreds of thousands of people who gathered for the event.

But consider this: Our governmental effort to secure the Mall and march routes on Saturday involved the deployment of enough munitions and manpower to topple a small country. Youngsters walking with signs that read “Books not bullets” and “Arms are for hugging” had to pass through a phalanx of uniformed officers carrying both bullets and arms.

What is the nature of the threat that would make our First Amendment freedoms so heavily dependent on Second Amendment firepower?

“There are threats everywhere, as we saw in Maryland,” Rodriguez said, referring to the recent fatal school shooting in St. Mary’s County. “And it’s not just the active shooter. It’s also terrorism, which has become more unpredictable . . . decentralized. We have to be prepared for an attack at any time, 24/7, whether it’s like the one in Manchester or in New York City.”

However, there is disagreement over what it means to be prepared — as well as where the real threat lies.

“Unless law enforcement officials have specific information about a threat, just having more cops and more guns won’t necessarily protect people,” said Thomas Nolan, a former senior policy analyst at the Department of Homeland Security and a criminologist at Merrimack College in North Andover, Mass. “God forbid, but if someone really wanted to do harm at an event, it would be almost impossible to stop it. They may think they are protecting First Amendment activity with a heavy police presence, but it can also have a corrosive effect. People become less inclined to speak up when they are surrounded by guns. They can end up sending a message that you need a gun just to have the freedom to speak.”

At the rally, I asked several youngsters if seeing all those guns made them feel safer.

“It feels like overkill, like they aren’t really out here to protect us but more like they are trying to protect society from us,” said Thomas Lavery, 19, a recent graduate of the University of Wisconsin who lives in Princeton, N.J. “Let us have the courage of our convictions. We have too many guns. We do not need to own arsenals. The whole point of the protest is to stop relying so much on violence and start taking care of each other.”

A woman who was with him but asked not to be identified said: “All the guns spread a military mind-set throughout our society; it has a ripple effect. It doesn’t make us safer and may even put us at greater risk.”

David Beddow, a lawyer who lives in Potomac, Md., referred to the police as “our well-regulated militia. There is no need for civilians to have military-style weapons. But the police are trained to use guns, and they are here to support us. They don’t want people to get hurt. I’m glad they are here.”

Asked if being around so many guns made him feel safe, Patrick Jensen, a seventh-grader from West Hartford, Conn., shrugged and said, “Half and half.” Only half safe — that was not enough.

In his worldwide threat assessment delivered in February, Daniel Coats, director of national intelligence, put his finger on the heart of the problem that drives violence, whether with a gun, bomb, knife or fist: poor governance, weak national political institutions and economic inequality.

Political leaders who lie, renege on commitments, use their public offices for private gain, steal from the poor and give to the rich, erode the trust in authoritative news sources and in the process weaken or destroy democracy — that is the greatest threat to our national security.

Deal with that and the otherwise intractable gun problem may well resolve itself. Let it fester, and no matter how many guns the police have or how few of them end up in the hands of criminals, the future will be bleak.

To read previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/milloy.