As a gun owner and a supporter of both the First (free speech and assembly) and Second Amendment (right to bear arms) of the U.S. Constitution, I was embarrassed and concerned by the Flathead Patriot Guard’s showing at the Black Lives Matter rally at Depot Park. The presence of armed vigilantes at a peaceful protest is not normal and we should not allow it to become normal.
The Supreme Court has ruled that the Second Amendment allows citizens to defend their homes and businesses with firearms. But it does not allow citizens to form armed vigilante squads. It does not allow armed vigilante squads to intimidate – intentionally or not – other citizens exercising their First Amendment rights.
The Flathead Patriot Guard told the press that intimidation was not their goal. Their goal, they claimed, was to protect the War Memorial from vandalism. Evidently they felt the need to carry large-capacity, center-fire, semi-automatic weapons to do this. Who are they afraid of? Thoughtful students and concerned citizens armed with cardboard signs?
First off, no one asked for their “protection.” In a civilized community, we have professionals who are hired to protect public parks and to keep order: police. At the rally, we saw police from city, county and state present. They did their job. The vigilantes were unnecessary and uncalled for.
Second, no rational person can believe that the presence of grim-faced men with ball bats and firearms is neutral. I’ve been to Memorial Day vigils and public rallies at Depot Park for 30 years and the atmosphere of this rally was made menacing by the Flathead Patriot Guard. I will take them at their word that this was not their intent, but it was in fact their impact. If I felt anxious as a white male comfortable around firearms, I can only imagine what others, say a black man or indigenous woman, must feel. All Americans have the right to assemble and speak their minds without intimidation. The Flathead Patriot Guard violated that right.
Third, what were they going to do with all this firepower? If someone had wanted to break a window or spray-paint a monument, did they intend to open fire in a crowded park? What mayhem would follow from that action? What kind of mistake – an accidental discharge, a backfire, a firecracker – would escalate into bloodshed? Would that be worth it?
The premise of these gun hobbyists being capable of quelling some imaginary riot is video-game quality fantasy. If things had turned ugly, they and their weapons would have only made matters worse.
While protesters at the rally were to a person polite and within their rights, they were subjected to obscene taunts and gestures and squealing tires from passersby. That goes with the territory of public rallies. Everyone has a right to their opinion. But brandishing guns crosses the line.
If the Flathead Patriot Guard wants to celebrate their Second Amendment rights and their gun fetishes, they should have their own rally. Meanwhile, they should leave their guns at home. Their Second Amendment rights do not eclipse the First Amendment rights of Americans to gather and speak their minds without fear or intimidation. There is no room for vigilantes in today’s Montana.
The right thing for the Flathead Patriot Guard to do is quietly disband or show up with their own signs and flags. Let the professional police do their job. If the Flathead Patriot Guard persists in their irresponsible displays of gun ownership, then our elected representatives need to clarify our laws to keep this behavior out of the bedrock American principle of right to protest.