Over the weekend, news surfaced of Dmitriy Andreychenko, the 20-year-old man who thought it would be a useful “social experiment” to walk through a Walmart in Springfield, Missouri, wearing body armor, carrying an AR-style rifle less than a week after a gunman killed 22 people at a Walmart in El Paso, Texas. Andreychenko was also carrying a semi-automatic handgun loaded with one round in its chamber. And more than 100 rounds of ammunition. When the cops apprehended him, he insisted, as told by the Washington Post, that he had only been “testing” whether “his Second Amendment rights would be honored in a public area.”
Oddly enough, both his sister and his wife had warned him that people might not react well to this social experiment—that perhaps context mattered in the days after the massacre at the Texas Walmart. But Andreychenko told cops he “did not anticipate customers’ reactions,” because, as he told investigators, “This is Missouri … I understand if we were somewhere else like New York or California, people would freak out.”
Or like Texas, maybe.
At one level, he’s not wrong: Missouri is an open-carry state, and a 2014 state law overruled any more conservative local regulations against open carry, as the Washington Post noted this weekend. Andreychenko gets to do whatever he wants in Missouri, so long as he is (a) white and (b) not scaring the good people of the Springfield Walmart because of some unquantified temporal proximity to the El Paso shootings.
But he did scare the good people of Walmart—a store patron, identified by a local news station as a former member of the military, held Andreychenko at gunpoint outside the building until the police got there and then took him into custody. The police told him he couldn’t keep doing what he had been doing, but if you look at what they said, none of it really makes any sense. In the same Washington Post article, Greene County Prosecuting Attorney Dan Patterson said in a statement that “Missouri protects the right of people to open carry a firearm, but that does not allow an individual to act in a reckless and criminal manner endangering other citizens.”
It’s worth stopping to note here that Andreychenko’s little “social experiment” was only one of many post–El Paso. CNN notes that since that massacre, at least eight other Walmarts have descended into similar bouts of chaos and panic in a single week. On Tuesday, frightened customers fled a Louisiana Walmart after men in an argument drew weapons. You know, just a bunch of guys, having fun with the First and Second amendments, while people scatter in terror and prepare to die.
Andreychenko didn’t die last week. Instead, officers took the man into custody “without incident.” That’s a tremendous surfeit of good fortune for a man who was apprehended both by an armed bystander and the police. By its very definition, white privilege is the ability to film yourself conducting a “social experiment” with military-grade weapons at the same chain where a mass shooting just happened, without being shot dead in your tracks. Trayvon Martin wasn’t even granted the luxury of being allowed to conduct a “social experiment” with a bag of Skittles.
Instead, Andreychenko was charged with, basically, “scaring the people”—formally with “making a terrorist threat.” Presumably, he and all the other social experimenters will be free to go back to their laboratories of Second Amendment democracy just as soon as this latest mass shooting slips out of our minds. Springfield attorney Scott Pierson even told a local news outlet that Andreychenko might not have been arrested for the incident if it had happened before the shootings last weekend in El Paso and Dayton. “But because of those things [that] happened, a reasonable person would be fearful of an individual walking in with a tactical vest and what looks like an assault rifle,” he said.
By this logic, Andreychenko could have … what? Waited a week and then tried his stunt then? Chosen a Kmart instead of a Walmart? Worn a lab coat? At what point would a reasonable person believe that “an individual walking in with a tactical vest and what looks like an assault rifle” is just there to shop? A few years back, in response to a rise in men claiming First Amendment rights to mass around restaurants armed to the teeth, Christian Turner and I argued that it’s impossible to tell who’s doing performance art and who’s there to kill or terrorize folks. “Given how many people die every year as a result of gun violence, reasonable observers can’t differentiate between the AK-47 being brandished for lethal purposes and the one being brandished to celebrate freedom and self-reliance,” we wrote. “That’s why reasonable observers tend to feel intimidated and call the cops.”
Almost exactly two years ago, on Aug. 11, 2017, white supremacist Chris Cantwell was apprehended at a Walmart in Charlottesville, Virginia, waving guns around the parking lot. The cops let him go because, you guessed it, open carry. He went on to terrorize thousands of people, and later he pleaded guilty to assault and battery. He has been barred from the commonwealth for five years.
I am mindful of privilege today more than most days because it is the second anniversary of the Charlottesville Unite the Right rally, and we all know how that ended. I am mindful of what privilege buys you in America: the right to not get shot when you’re armed to the teeth, and the right to not have to explain beyond the fact that you were just “experimenting” with constitutional freedoms. The privilege of violent white men is the privilege of an almost-perfect failure of empathy, imagination, or regard. It buys you the right to ignore your wife and sister, to ignore current events and history and murder statistics, to ignore the fact that reasonable people should reasonably fear being shot in a bloody massacre. It allows you to stagger blindly through the world and not get killed, while you practice the fine art of looking like you can and will shoot hundreds of others, without even wondering why people are fleeing the building with their children clutched tight.
White men with guns, quickly becoming the most lethal cohort of Americans, don’t just benefit, every day, from the presumption of innocence, and eternal boyhood. They benefit twice over—first from that, and then from the presumption that their perfect self-absorption and solipsism are themselves enduringly worthy of constitutional protection.