Since January 2020, the U.S. has witnessed over 600 armed protests. During this time, individuals have openly carried firearms while demonstrating against COVID measures, counter-protesting racial justice demonstrations, advocating for Second Amendment rights, and contesting results of the 2020 presidential election, among other causes. In many cases, individuals bearing guns have claimed to be providing security, either for protesters or for property owners nearby.
Keeping Guns Away from Protests in the US
Briefer on regulatory options to protect peaceful assembly from the threat posed by firearms
Published: February 2022
Armed individuals intimidate and discourage people from exercising their rights to speech and assembly, and they have interfered with basic democratic processes like voting and lawmaking. They also pose a very real threat to public safety. Amidst unprecedented political polarization and heightened fears of political violence, the presence of firearms at protests today threatens to be a particularly combustible trend.
This briefer discusses reasonable and constitutionally-sound regulatory options at the federal, state, and local level to keep guns away from protests.
Banning firearms at and near public protests
Banning firearms near protests is a straightforward way to address the problems posed by armed individuals at protests. To provide the greatest protection for protesters, a ban on guns should extend to individuals in the vicinity of a protest, not just to those participating in the protest. The ban should also apply to permitted protests as well as protests where no permit has been obtained, allowing law enforcement to declare a gun-free zone for public assemblies that occur spontaneously.
Banning firearms at common protest locations
Policymakers should consider banning firearms at certain “sensitive places,” where protests frequently occur. This should include banning firearms both inside and in the immediate area surrounding statehouses, courthouses, university campuses, polling locations and vote counting centers, and government buildings more generally.
Banning protests by armed groups
While bans on firearms at protests or at the locations where protests tend to occur are a more straightforward approach to removing firearms from demonstrations, states should enforce preexisting laws at protests that ban armed groups from parading either as a set of armed individuals coming together or as part of an armed militia.
Restricting how firearms are carried near protests
Beyond bans on firearms and armed groups, policymakers can consider alternative measures—many already on the books—to address core concerns raised by guns at protests, including enforcing crimes against using guns to threaten others or to intimidate voters. If enforced in a targeted and appropriate manner, these measures could be useful where broader restrictions are unavailable.
Armed individuals at protests harm the public sphere by interfering with democratic processes and discouraging people from exercising their First Amendment rights. To safeguard Americans’ right to peacefully assemble, policymakers should consider reasonable and constitutionally-sound restrictions to keep firearms away from public protests.