Armed Protestors Inspire Fear, Chill Free Speech

20.05.27 SOC 2A Protests Blog visuals
An armed protestor outside the Pennsylvania Capitol Building in Harrisburg on May 15, 2020.

Editor’s note: Updated July 17, 2020.

In recent months, we’ve witnessed an alarming uptick in incidents of armed protestors asserting that their right to bear arms trumps every other right—not to mention public health and safety.

But protestors who strap rifles to their chests and show up to rallies in tactical gear are not defending themselves against any actual, credible threats.

What they are doing is chilling free speech, and in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, endangering the lives of everyone in their communities, especially the elderly and the immunocompromised.

In the first two months of 2020, most armed protestors showing up to state capitols were doing so to protest gun laws, arguing that even commonsense regulations of firearms were somehow an intrusion on their Second Amendment right.

In the past three months, we’ve seen a noticeable shift in what the armed protestors are rallying against—now it’s state shelter-in-place orders that they claim are an attack on their liberty. In both cases, these protestors—predominantly white men—are not taking public safety into account when expressing their discontent.

As Giffords Law Center Staff Attorney Hannah Friedman wrote in a Newsweek op-ed last month, “Actual safety should matter more to a democracy than someone’s unfounded fears. Yet gun rights extremists say just the opposite, arguing that Americans have a right to feel safe, so long as feeling safe means having a gun, even though irresponsible gun owners brandishing their guns in public places make everyone less safe.”

The gun lobby has a long history of ginning up fear to sell guns. In many of the incidents described below, their actions were meant to inspire fear—often, they succeeded. A black state legislator in Michigan came to work accompanied by an escort of armed black citizens, an expression of her frustration at the inability of the Michigan capitol police to provide adequate security against the armed protestors in the state capitol.

While the Supreme Court of the United States has yet to rule on the right to keep and bear arms in public, William & Mary Law School Professor Timothy Zick writes:

“Constitutional scholars have argued that exercising First Amendment rights of speech and assembly is both physically and theoretically incompatible with open carry at protest events.”

Researchers have suggested that the presence of visible firearms may increase aggressive and violent behaviors. It can also escalate into tragic violence. Look no further than the despicable murder of Ahmaud Arbery, gunned down in the streets by armed white civilians while out for a jog.

Below, we have compiled a representative sampling of more than two dozen of these events: incidents in which, though no guns were fired, armed protestors used open carry to stoke fear and intimidation. We’ll continue to update this blog regularly throughout the year.

Incidents of Armed Protesters Openly Carrying Firearms

July 10, 2020— Milwaukee, Wisconsin: A small Black Lives Matter protest was disrupted by a group of counter-protestors carrying guns. The counter-protesters claimed that they showed up armed because of a rumor that American flags would be burned at the event. They disrupted the event speakers by yelling and singing the Star-Spangled Banner. [Source]

July 4, 2020— Phoenix, Arizona: Armed counter-protesters aimed their loaded rifles and yelled at lawful protesters demonstrating against police brutality. A video from the demonstration shows a woman flipping off the unarmed protestors before clutching the pistol at her waist. [Source]

June 17, 2020—Albuquerque, New Mexico: A protest calling for the removal of a sculpture of a Spanish conquistador ended with gunshots after members of an armed militia, the New Mexico Civil Guard, joined. [Source]

June 15, 2020—Bethel, Ohio: Counter-protesters, including an armed motorcycle gang, joined a Black Lives Matter demonstration. Some of the demonstrators with the BLM movement reported that they were afraid of the counter-protesters, who were holding guns and pushing them around aggressively. [Source]

June 6, 2020—Crown Point, Indiana: While lawful protesters took the streets to stand up against police violence and racism, a few dozen counter-protesters, some with assault rifles, shouted and attempted to intimidate them. [Source]

May 24, 2020—Louisville, Kentucky: A Second Amendment rally attracted about 100 people, some armed with guns. The protest quickly turned into an anti-lockdown rally protesting the actions of Governor Andy Beshear. Protestors carried signs reading “Abort Beshear from office” and “My rights don’t end where your fear begins” to Gov. Beshear’s home before hanging an effigy of the governor on a tree outside the state capitol. [Source]

May 22, 2020—Morganton, North Carolina: The group ReOpenNC has organized a number of armed protests against the state’s lockdown policies, during which attendees have shown up with rifles, rocket launchers, and other guns. The husband of the ReOpenNC leader posted a 17-minute-long video saying he “would be willing to kill people” for his freedom and that armed protestors would “bring force” if police tried to stop them from protesting. [Source and Source]

May 18, 2020—Grand Rapids, Michigan: Barry County Sheriff Dar Leaf headlined a rally attended by members of the Michigan Liberty Militia, urging the reopening of the state. Militia leader Phil Robinson said the reason for members to openly carry at the protest was “just to make sure that everybody had a right to peacefully assemble and safely.” [Source]

May 16, 2020—Raleigh, North Carolina: A group of armed demonstrators walked the streets of Raleigh for the second time this month. On Facebook, the group described the demonstration as “an opportunity for first and second amendment supporters to get together, meet people with commonalities, and get some exercise while we’re all wasting away at home.” After a police officer asked the protestors to put down their guns if they were going to walk through downtown (while North Carolina is an open carry state, individuals are not allowed to possess guns at protests), the demonstrators refused, denying that they were protesting. No arrests were made. [Source]

May 15, 2020—Harrisburg, Pennsylvania: Hundreds of protesters, some carrying signs comparing Dr. Anthony Fauci to a Nazi and many armed with guns, gathered in Harrisburg to call for an end to the state’s lockdown. President Trump, who had recently visited the state, tweeted that Pennsylvanians “want their freedom now.” [Source]

May 14, 2020—Lansing, Michigan: The militia group Michigan United for Liberty organized their third armed protest against Governor Whitmer’s stay-at-home order, on what they termed “judgement day.” Comments threatening violence against the governor and other legislators were circulating on private Facebook groups in advance of the rally. During the protest, a man with an ax got into a fight that was broken up by police, allegedly over a sign that depicted an American flag with a naked doll with a noose around its neck. [Source and Source]

May 9, 2020—Raleigh, North Carolina: A group of armed protesters marched in the streets of Raleigh, demanding an end to the state’s stay-at-home order. They claimed to be peaceful and not protesting but just “gathering to support [their] god given freedom as Americans.” After the demonstration, many of them entered a sandwich shop with guns, masks, and an AT4 rocket launcher. [Source]

May 9, 2020—Las Vegas, Nevada: A group of about 60 people, many of them armed, protested Governor Sisolak’s shelter-in-place order. The protestors, who called themselves the Reopen Nevada Group, received a police escort to City Hall. Speakers expressed their interest in prioritizing the economy over public health and safety. One woman in the crowd shouted “Sisolak is a virus in Nevada!” [Source]

May 4, 2020—Odessa, Texas: A bar owner in Texas re-opened her bar, in defiance of state orders, alongside a group of men clad in body armor and carrying weapons. The bar owner was arrested for defying state owners and the armed men were arrested for carrying weapons on a licensed property. “This was not a protest of their Second Amendment rights,” the Ector County sheriff told reporters. “It was a show of force to ensure this [bar owner] could violate the governor’s order.” [Source]

May 2, 2020—Columbus, Ohio: A number of protestors with guns assembled outside the home of Ohio’s health department director, Dr. Amy Acton, to express their anger about the closure of Ohio businesses. Protestors also carried American flags and signs that read “let freedom work.” [Source]

May 1, 2020—Denver, Colorado: Hundreds of protesters gathered to demand that the state fully reopen, claiming that the government was violating their constitutional rights. One man who helped organize the protest and encouraged protesters to show up with guns was arrested after a series of “angry and aggressive” social media posts led to federal agents discovering pipe bomb materials in his home. [Source and Source]

April 30, 2020—Lansing, Michigan: Members of Michigan United for Liberty hosted an “American Patriot Rally” during which several hundred armed protesters entered the state capitol building and demanded entry to the house floor. Some carried signs depicting nooses, Confederate flags, and the slogan “tyrants get the rope.” A number of frightened senators wore bulletproof vests. The Republican leader of the state senate said some of the protesters “used intimidation and the threat of physical harm to stir up fear and feed rancor,” while the president called the protestors “very good people.” [Source]

April 24, 2020—Madison, Wisconsin: Thousands of people showed up to Wisconsin’s state capitol to protest stay-at-home orders. Several men held assault rifles and other guns. The police remained six feet away from protestors but didn’t enforce social distancing rules. Seventy-two Wisconsites who tested positive for coronavirus in early May reported attending a “large gathering” before their diagnosis. [Source and Source]

April 20, 2020—Phoenix, Arizona: Individuals protesting the state’s lockdown orders marched on the state capitol building, many of them wielding assault rifles. According to healthcare professionals who showed up to counter-protest, many of those protesting lockdowns were not peaceful, accusing the healthcare professionals of being actors “dressed up in costume” and purposefully coughing on them. [Source]

March 22, 2020—Erie County, Pennsylvania: Two men stood together outside a courthouse, one armed with an AR-15-style rifle and several other guns, to protest the Eerie County sheriff’s decision to pause the processing of concealed carry permits during the pandemic. One of the protestors claimed this decision was unconstitutional, despite ample case law upholding 1) temporary rights restrictions during emergencies, and 2) various non-emergency restrictions on concealed carry permits. [Source]

March 14, 2020—Concord, New Hampshire: Hundreds of armed activists gathered to “defend their Second Amendment right” at a rally organized by the Women’s Defense League of New Hampshire. Attendees chanted “come and take it,” and a number of speakers raised the alarm about the government attempting to take away their rights, including a young girl who ended her speech with “live free or die!” [Source]

February 24, 2020—Lincoln, Nebraska: Around 400 people showed up to the state capitol to protest gun laws, many of them armed with loaded rifles—despite the fact that the Nebraska state capitol does not allow political signs or props in the building, and bans concealed firearms. “I was intimidated. I was scared,” said a state senator who sponsored a bill that would prohibit people with domestic violence convictions from purchasing firearms. [Source]

February 24, 2020—Boise, Idaho: An eleven-year-old girl brought a loaded AR-15 to a legislative hearing in Boise. She and her grandfather were at the hearing to support a bill that would allow visitors from out of state to carry concealed handguns within city limits. According to the Associated Press, “There was no notable reaction among lawmakers to the girl carrying the AR-15.” [Source]

February 15, 2020—Alexandria, Virginia: A gun rights activist showed up at Delegate Mark Levine’s home with a shotgun to protest an assault weapons bill sponsored by the delegate. The activist, the founder of a local gun rights group, claimed that Levine was a “domestic enemy” to the Constitution. [Source]

February 15, 2020—Phoenix, Arizona: Thousands of armed protestors gathered outside the state capitol for an annual rally. Activists spoke out against gun bills that would require individuals convicted of domestic violence to relinquish their firearms within 24 hours of sentencing. “As stewards of this inheritance of liberty, we must prevent the deflation of our rights from happening,” said a conservative radio host. “We must push back on the rights deniers and Bloomberg-financed ‘moms who demand some unnamed action.’” [Source]

February 8, 2020—Salt Lake City, Utah: Hundreds of people showed up to protest a bill that would enact a number of new gun safety laws, including an extreme risk protection order and universal background checks. Many of the activists were armed and some held flags with phrases such as “come and take it.” [Source]

January 31, 2020—Frankfort, Kentucky: Dozens of armed protestors gathered in the capitol rotunda to protest proposed changes to Kentucky’s gun laws, including bills to close the private sale loophole and repeal the state’s permitless carry law. Armed attendees were told to walk around the building’s metal detector rather than going through it. This was at least the second rally in January during which protestors brought guns into the rotunda, despite the building previously banning visitors from bringing in umbrellas. [Source]

January 31, 2020—Santa Fe, New Mexico: Hundreds of armed protestors demonstrated against the state’s proposed extreme risk law at an NRA-sponsored rally. “They’ve already taken the cannons,” one protestor armed with an AR-15 told a local news outlet about what she viewed as the government’s infringement on her Second Amendment right. “They’ve already taken automatic weapons. They’re trying to take everything.” [Source]

January 31, 2020—Palmer, Alaska: A few hundred protestors, some of whom were armed, gathered in Palmer to protest a new ordinance related to local shooting ranges. “To have the borough try to tell us that we can’t use our lands and we can’t use things in use of our Second Amendment rights completely goes against the state constitution,” claimed one protestor. [Source]

January 20, 2020—Richmond, Virgina: Thousands of armed protestors marched through the streets of the state capitol, prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency. Activists, some of whom were dressed in full tactical gear, chanted “we will not comply.” Two protestors wore shirts that depicted guns and read “Make Politicians Afraid Again.” [Source]

January 5, 2020—Seattle, Washington: Activists hosting a rally called United Against Hate, some of whom were armed with rifled, were outnumbered by counter-demonstrators. Four people were arrested and two police cruisers were damaged after a protracted standoff. [Source]