The spread of protests across a growing number of states expressing opposition to covid-19 pandemic quarantine policies reflects equal parts understandable frustration and disturbing militancy — and in some instances, armed militancy. In Idaho, for example, several hundred protesters at the state capitol were addressed by a speaker carrying an assault rifle, and gun-carrying has been a feature in several state protests, including in Wisconsin, Michigan, Washington and Ohio.

But why, exactly, include guns in the mix?

The short answer is because the mere presence of guns — and it only need be a few — in a collective protest setting is a way to express a threat by nonverbal means, especially when paired with the incendiary, insurrectionist rhetoric of far-right militant groups.

Those carrying guns to political events would be quick to deny any such effort to intimidate, emphasizing that they are simply exercising their rights. Strictly speaking, that’s right, as most states allow open gun-carrying, including at large gatherings. But what gun carriers refuse to admit is that they carry guns to these events because they are intimidating, whether they care to admit it or not.

Take a different but analogous example: police interrogation. In 1966, the Supreme Court ruled that suspects being questioned while in police custody had to be informed of their constitutional rights, including the right to remain silent and to have the assistance of an attorney. The reason police were required to provide these Miranda rights to those being interrogated was because, as the court said, “in-custody interrogation is inherently coercive,” and coerced confessions are by their nature unreliable and a violation of the protection against self-incrimination. In other words, custodial interrogation, by its very nature, is inherently coercive, regardless of the good intentions or friendly demeanor of the police.

The same can be said of the presence of guns in a political setting. The fact of gun-carrying outweighs the stated intention of the carrier.

Our own gun history reveals that our ancestors well understood this about guns. In fact, gun-carrying and display have long been subject to restrictions under the category of weapons “brandishing.”

In 1786, Massachusetts enacted a law giving law enforcement the power to disperse armed groups of 12 or more — and for no other reason. An 1859 Washington law criminalized the “exhibit” of a dangerous weapon “in a crowd of two or more persons.” An 1889 North Carolina law made it a crime “for any person to point any gun or pistol at any person, either in fun or otherwise,” regardless of whether the weapon was loaded. In 1910, South Carolina made it a crime to point any firearm at another person, whether loaded or unloaded. Oregon did the same in 1925.

All of these laws criminalized the mere display of firearms around others. Other brandishing laws did address the state of mind or intent of the gun carrier. Most commonly, these laws penalized any who would display a firearm “in a rude, angry and threatening manner,” as did Mississippi in 1840, or “for the purpose of frightening or intimidating,” as did Oklahoma in 1868. In all, at least 30 states enacted brandishing laws in the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries.

Closely related were restrictions on when and where people could carry guns, stretching back to the 17th century. These laws restricted gun-carrying in public places, communal gatherings, schools, churches, circuses or shows, parades (if the weapons were loaded), certain meeting places including legislative houses, entertainments, on Sundays or on Election Day. Separate measures commonly and strictly regulated firearm discharges. More common still were restrictions on mere gun-carrying. From the 17th through the start of the 20th centuries, 47 states restricted concealed (and in some cases open) gun-carrying.

Taken together, this body of law squarely contradicts the modern claim by a few gun owners that a person carrying a gun is no danger or source of intimidation to others if that person does not intend to do harm. A person carrying a gun to go hunting or target shooting is transporting the weapon to use for its lawful and intended purpose. Whether armed protesters admit it or not, gun-carrying to a political rally serves a different, disturbing and unnecessary purpose: intimidation. It is inherent in the act, putting it squarely at odds with vigorous, open and lawful political dissent. Our ancestors, it seems, understood this better than we do.

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