Democracy Guns Safety

Armed Protesters Are Making Protests Dangerous and Risky

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This article in the New York Times magazine describes a protest at the Capitol in Virginia on January 20, 2020. It is supposed to be an annual event where people peaceably assemble to exercise their Constitutional rights and express support for their causes.

But last year was different. And it raises this question: Can Americans peaceably assemble when many of them are armed with military-grade weapons that threaten those who dissent?

There are 400 million privately owned guns in America, by some estimates, and on Jan. 20, 2020, some 22,000 of their owners arrived at the State Capitol of Virginia, a neoclassical building designed by Thomas Jefferson that sits on a rolling lawn in the hilly center of downtown Richmond. The occasion was Lobby Day, a recent tradition in Virginia, held annually on Martin Luther King’s Birthday, on which citizen groups come to the Capitol to directly air their concerns to their representatives in the State Legislature. The concerns of the gun owners, who were assembled by an organization called the Virginia Citizens Defense League, were in one sense specific: They were protesting a raft of firearms-related bills the Legislature’s new Democratic majority was taking up that would tighten the state’s generally permissive gun laws. Seventy-eight counties in the state, making up the near-entirety of its rural areas, had declared themselves “Second Amendment sanctuaries,” according to the V.C.D.L.

Gun owners see any restriction on guns, no matter how reasonable, as a threat to their “rights.” They are certainly unaware that the Federal Government banned the manufacture of assault weapons for civilian use in 1994.

The Public Safety and Recreational Firearms Use Protection Act or Federal Assault Weapons Ban (AWB) was a subsection of the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994, a United States federal law which included a prohibition on the manufacture for civilian use of certain semi-automatic firearms that were defined as assault weapons as well as certain ammunition magazines that were defined as “large capacity.”

The 10-year ban was passed by the US Congress on September 13, 1994, following a close 52–48 vote in the US Senate, and was signed into law by US President Bill Clinton on the same day. The ban applied only to weapons manufactured after the date of the ban’s enactment. It expired on September 13, 2004, in accordance with its sunset provision. Several constitutional challenges were filed against provisions of the ban, but all were rejected by the courts. There were multiple attempts to renew the ban, but none succeeded.

So there is nothing in the Constitution or in the Second Amendment that prohibits limits on the sale or manufacture of military-grade weapons to civilians.

Will Congress act again? Not likely with a Congress so evenly divided along ideological lines. Not likely with the Republican Party in thrall to the gun lobby, which opposes all restrictions. The Sandy Hook massacre of twenty babies and six staff members at an elementary school in Connecticut in 2012 did not move Congress to limit gun purchases, nor did the Parkland massacre of seventeen people in 2018. Nor did the Orlando massacre of 49 people in 2016. Nor did the Las Vegas massacre of 2017, when a lone killer murdered 60 people and injured others who were attending an outdoor concert.

What will it take?

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