Last Wednesday evening, as soldiers went room to room clearing the United States Capitol of seditionists, I was on the phone with Michigan State Sen. Dayna Polehanki, who recalled the April 2020 day when men with long guns showed up at the statehouse in Lansing to pressure lawmakers to repeal a COVID-19 emergency law. Like last week’s siege, that incursion was egged on by Donald Trump, who tweeted in support, “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” Some observers even thought the president’s tweet constituted insurrection—the offense for which he is now being impeached.
The intimidation in Michigan worked: Lawmakers did repeal the law, and though Polehanki did not vote with the majority, she told me the threat was clear: “When I can’t speak freely and press my vote button because someone is standing over me with a rifle, you’re infringing on my First Amendment rights.” Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel agreed that the protesters had crossed the line from simply carrying weapons to brandishing them—making a threat. (Later, it turned out that several men present were plotting to kidnap the governor.)
On Monday, the Michigan State Capitol Commission decided to prohibit open carry inside the statehouse, citing the attack on Congress. It was an acknowledgment that—beneath the conspiracy theories, the presidential cult of personality, and the craven Republican Party—the big challenge to returning to any kind of political sense of “normal” is guns.
To be sure, at the siege of the Capitol, the only shots appear to have been fired by U.S. Capitol Police (though several guns were found nearby). But this was the miraculous exception that proves the rule. Capitol Police’s relative deference to the mob should be seen not just in the context of law enforcement’s cozy relationship with Trump, the way police treat white people, or their general unpreparedness—but also in light of the expectation that the crowd could be armed.
Next time, it will be. The FBI is warning of armed protests in all 50 state capitals and in D.C., leading up to Inauguration Day on Jan. 20.
In Madison, Wisconsin, contractors are boarding up the windows of the statehouse. Additional security measures are underway in Annapolis, Maryland. The U.S. Capitol will be lined with 15,000 National Guard troops, and much of the National Mall will be closed until Jan. 24, according to the National Park Service, and that may be “extended if conditions persist.”
How long will conditions persist?
For a decade, we’ve been slowly adjusting to the new role of guns in public life. We’ve redesigned schools, installed metal detectors at every theater and arena, and endured horrific massacres at events including a Brooklyn block party, a California garlic festival, an El Paso, Texas, Walmart, and a Dayton, Ohio, nightlife district. And that was just over eight days in 2019. While the pandemic has brought some respite from headline-grabbing massacres such as school shootings, the toll of gun violence in 2020 was even worse than the year before. Shootings almost doubled in New York City. Murders in both Chicago and New York rose by 50 percent. This trend was consistent across most U.S. cities.
And while America’s trigger-happy policing is not new, police departments justify the warrior-cop equipment on display at this summer’s protests by citing the heavily armed populace. Indeed, police are more likely to kill and to be killed in parts of America where more people own guns.
So in a way, confronting the role of guns in political life—from Washington to Lansing to beleaguered county commissions—is long overdue. After Michigan, the issue flared again this summer as militia groups confronted Black Lives Matter protesters in Portland, Oregon; Austin, Texas; and Kenosha, Wisconsin. Several people were killed.
When the rioters entered Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s suite in the Capitol last week, staffers hiding in her conference room had turned off the lights and barricaded the door—techniques, she told 60 Minutes, they learned from active shooter drills in high school.
Liberals used to scoff when gun rights advocates justified their assault rifles by invoking the Second Amendment’s “well-regulated militia.” But the ubiquitous presence of large, organized groups of gun carriers in American public life is changing the way government works. Most pressingly, the thinly veiled threat of violence appears to be motivating the way the Republican Party governs. Rep. Adam Kinzinger, a Republican from Illinois who will vote to impeach the president, says his colleagues are afraid. Rep. Peter Meijer, a Republican from Michigan, said some of his GOP colleagues voted against certifying the election for Joe Biden because “they felt that vote would put their families in danger.” “Both parties have extremists,” a GOP lawmaker told Politico. “There’s a difference in our crazy people and their crazy people. Our crazy people have an excessive amount of arms. They have gun safes. They have grenades. They believe in the Second Amendment. They come here and Trump’s made them think this is the Alamo.” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy reportedly warned members not to verbally attack one another over their upcoming impeachment votes for fear of endangering their lives.
So far, most of the faceoffs between Trump loyalists and federal lawmakers have occurred in airports, in whose rarified, gun-free confines disputes can be freely, if not calmly, aired. Many government buildings have been closed this year because of COVID, leaving angry Americans to confront their representatives on Zoom instead of in hallways and parking lots.
But sooner rather than later, we’re going to have to deal with the oxymoron of open-carry democracy. How do we permit a populace armed to the teeth to safely march, to rally, to watch its government in action, to confront and engage with politicians at will? When does the mere presence of a gun become a threat?
One possible future is taking shape in D.C., where both the White House and the U.S. Capitol have expanded their security fencing to take in acres of streets and parkland, and some members of Congress are beginning to doubt whether their insurrectionist peers can be trusted in the presence of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. For the first time, members of the House will have to pass through metal detectors to reach the floor.
Like lawmakers in Michigan, we are only beginning to see just how much the fullest expression of the Second Amendment curtails the fullest expression of the First.