It may not have been the most effective mode of political outreach. But it wasn't an illegal one. Virginia is an open carry state — and, as in most open carry states, there is no exception for polling places.
Most states have no laws regarding guns in polling places, because, for the most part, they haven't really needed to make them. The confluence of firearms and polling places isn't something America has been concerned about on a national scale — until now.
As we stumble into the home stretch of one of the most divisive presidential elections in recent history — complete with eyebrow-raising rhetoric on guns and voter fraud — there's plenty of edginess to go around. It was evident Saturday night at a Trump event in Reno, Nev., where some in the crowd yelled that they'd seen a gun pulled out (after a thorough Secret Service search, it became clear that they hadn't.) And it's clear across the country, where many election officials are on far greater alert for possible intimidation or even violence on Election Day.
There's not much they can really do about it.
“We've never seen this level of concern, this far out from Election Day — poll workers in states across the country being trained to deal with guns,” said Erika Soto Lamb, a spokeswoman with Everytown for Gun Safet, a gun-control group aligned with former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Which brings us to the reason authorities are worried. Other than training for how to respond in a mass shooting or studying up on what actions define voter intimidation, state laws about guns and voter intimidation are a patchwork of wildly varying regulations. Most election officials sort through a hodgepodge of laws about concealed weapons and open carry, and take into account whether the polling place is on private or public property, to figure out whether a gun-toting voter is allowed in.
In fact, some state laws on guns could even be interpreted as counterproductive to voter safety. In Pennsylvania, for instance, voters can bring a handgun or rifle along to vote — but law enforcement has to stay at least 100 feet from the polling booth. In South Carolina, you can't bring an open carry handgun into the polling booth, but you can bring an open carry rifle or other long gun inside.
According to the nonprofit Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence, which tracks state gun laws, six states generally prohibit bringing guns in polling places (Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas). Four ban concealed carry guns in polling places (Mississippi, Missouri, Nebraska and South Carolina), but it gets complicated when you drill down into their open carry laws.
The combination of gun-related Election Day rhetoric and a somewhat confusing web of state gun laws has some election officials worried — especially in swing states with open carry laws and a history of mass gun violence.
In Virginia's Prince William County, where you can bring your gun into county government buildings, The Washington Post's Patricia Sullivan reports that the electoral board is considering seeking a one-day ban on weapons at polling places on private property.
In Colorado, poll workers in Denver and the suburb Aurora — the site of the 2012 “Dark Knight” mass shooting — are being trained on how to respond to a mass shooting.
In New Hampshire, where guns have been an issue in the U.S. Senate campaign, election officials are letting people know that some of their fellow voters might legally carry a weapon into polling places — even into schools.
And in Pennsylvania, where you can vote with a gun in tow in most locations, election officials are underscoring their states' laws about voter intimidation.
Intimidating voters is illegal in the United States, but intimidation can be hard to define. And it's certainly not a new problem. In an Election Day incident in 2008 that has been a touchstone for conservatives in recent years, two New Black Panther Party members stood outside a Philadelphia polling location dressed in black military-style uniforms; some on the scene that day accused them of making intimidating remarks.
But concerns about election safety and intimidation are playing out on a whole new scale this year.
No presidential candidate in modern history has driven the conversation about guns and voting as far as Donald Trump has. He has suggested that “Second Amendment people” may be the only check on Hillary Clinton's ability to appoint a Supreme Court nominee, he has boasted that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” without losing voters.
Meanwhile, Trump has urged his supporters to stake out polling locations in “certain areas” to watch for fraud — while claiming the election is rigged.
This new focus on guns in polling places is also playing out in the context of a battle about who can openly carry guns and where. In the past year or two, pro-gun activists and gun-control activists have clashed over whether there are (or should be) limits on carrying weapons in public in open carry states. Typically, an activist will bring an AR-15 into a Walmart or Target to demonstrate that he or she can, as gun-control activists cry foul and try to put pressure on the company to take a stand against it. (Bloomberg's group successfully pressured Starbucks and Chipotle into asking their customers to leave their guns at home.)
Every state and the District of Columbia allows the concealed carry of weapons in some form, though some states are far more restrictive about who is eligible than others. And in 42 states, you can carry your gun around openly — though most states have restrictions on where.
We as a nation have yet to come to a consensus about the ubiquity of firearms in many arenas; our electoral process is one of them.