They’ve represented gun owners in some of the highest-profile cases to hit the courts in recent years, but the Second Amendment Foundation won’t defend groups that hold public armed protests, saying that crosses a line.
“We are not a fan of armed protests and highly discourage that,” said Alan Gottlieb, the founder and executive vice president of the SAF. “Firearms serve a purpose, and the purpose is not a mouthpiece. It’s to defend yourself. If you are carrying it to make a political point, we are not going to support that.”
In the wake of recent public protests by neo-Nazis, white supremacists and “alt-right” adherents, demonstrations featuring gun rights backers openly carrying their weapons have come under intense scrutiny.
And the protesters are finding themselves increasingly isolated as national gun rights groups consider the role they will play.
“There are many in the gun community who believe the open carriers pose a big threat to gun rights because they are so aggressive and so in the face of other people in controversial settings that it could lead to a backlash,” said Adam Winkler, a gun rights scholar and constitutional law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.
In fact, the backlash has already begun.
After deadly violence at a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, this month, the American Civil Liberties Union — which represented organizers of the “Unite the Right” rally as they sought permits for the event — announced that its lawyers would no longer represent white supremacist groups if they carry firearms at demonstrations.
It’s legal to openly carry a firearm in most states, but in an era of heightened alert over terrorist attacks and mass shootings, the sight can still cause alarm for those unaccustomed to the practice.
The issue gets even more complicated when groups of firearms owners show up en masse carrying their weapons.
That happened in Charlottesville, where a contingent of armed demonstrators attended the event, and in some cases were described as having done a better job than police at breaking up skirmishes between rallygoers and protesters.
Despite the violent clashes, no shots were fired at the event.
Instead, one woman was killed and 19 others injured when a car plowed through a crowd of people who were protesting the rally.
But gun control group Everytown for Gun Safety has pointed to the events in Charlottesville as evidence of hate groups taking advantage of “weak gun laws to use guns to intimidate and silence free speech and marginalized communities.”
And lawmakers in Virginia and Pennsylvania have said they are now considering measures meant to prevent people from carrying weapons at public demonstrations.
“I don’t want weapons at any demonstration going forward,” Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, a Democrat, told reporters this week.
Mr. Gottlieb of SAF said that although he doesn’t condone armed protests, he does understand why someone might feel compelled to bring a firearm to a contentious rally for self-defense. In the case of a person legally carrying a firearm to a demonstration but being arrested or disarmed by authorities, he said the Second Amendment Foundation would consider legal involvement.
Erich Pratt, executive director of Gun Owners of America, said his organization hasn’t brought any legal cases involving groups that wanted to carry firearms at protests, noting that First Amendment issues aren’t their specialty.
But he said GOA has spoken out in support of groups who wanted to march with firearms so long as their intentions were peaceful.
“We would publicly defend the right of any group to do that,” he said. “We don’t support racist groups. But holding distasteful views doesn’t mean that you forfeit your right to life or forfeit your Second Amendment rights.”
He also said his group would oppose any legislation to bar carrying firearms at demonstrations.
“I think it’s important that this not lead to any discussion in terms of limiting liberty and rights because people do need to defend themselves,” Mr. Pratt said. “Should we outlaw interracial marriage because of how it makes some people feel? No. People’s right to self-defense shouldn’t be overridden and denied just because it makes some people feel nervous.”
The country’s largest gun rights group, the National Rifle Association, declined to comment to The Washington Times on this issue.
Another group, Pink Pistols, said the issue of armed protesters is far afield from their core mission of encouraging members of the gay community to arm themselves for self-defense.
Pink Pistols spokeswoman Gwendolyn Patton could recall only one instance in the group’s 17-year history that it stepped in to intervene on behalf of members who encountered a problem legally carrying firearms at a gay pride event in Ohio.
“The organizers had made demands in their rules that if people brought guns to the event, they would be confiscated and not returned,” said Ms. Patton, adding that disarming the members would have amounted to robbery.
The group contacted police, who confirmed the members could open carry in the state but that the permits for the event did not allow for weapons on site. The police asked the group to leave, and the members did, she said.
Ms. Patton said the group cooperates with what event permit-holders ask “as long as what they say is lawful.”
Considering the violence carried out at recent rallies by both white supremacists and “antifa” protesters, Ms. Patton said she doesn’t want her group associated with either side and has asked members who plan to attend such rallies not to involve the group’s name.
“I would recommend to my people to simply not go,” she said. “The issue here is not guns, the issue is the ideology and idea that it is OK to hurt another person simply because of what they said.”
If armed protesters find themselves without any defenders, Mr. Winkler said there are other free speech advocates that might step up to fill the void.
“But if someone is obviously targeting guns, you will see the Second Amendment groups get involved,” he said.