Are Guns at Protests Really Dangerous?

So is this guy a terrifying threat to democracy?  Or just a civic-minded citizen?  If you think that his position on healthcare changes the likelihood that he will discharge that weapon, is this a rational belief?

I think carrying guns to protests is entirely counterproductive.  Indeed, I'm not sold on the general virtues of protesting, which worked for Gandhi and the civil rights marcher, but has a dismal track record on other concerns.  But I think people have a perfect right to do it, including with guns, though I also think the secret service is within its rights to ensure that they don't have a sight line on the president.


But the hysteria about them has been even more ludicrous.  Numerous people claim to believe that this makes it likely, even certain, that someone will shoot at the president.  This is very silly, because the president is not anywhere most of the gun-toting protesters, who have showed up at all sorts of events.  It is, I suppose, more plausible to believe that they might take a shot at someone else.  But not very plausible:  the rate of crime associated with legal gun possession or carrying seems to be very low.  Guns, it turn out, do not turn ordinary people into murderers.  They make murderers more effective.

So perhaps unsurprisingly, when offered the opportunity to put some money down on the proposition that one of these firearms is soon going to be discharged at someone, they all decline. It is starting to remind me of that C.S. Lewis quote from Mere Christianity:

Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one's first feeling, 'Thank God, even they aren't quite so bad as that,' or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible? If it is the second then it is, I am afraid, the first step in a process which, if followed to the end, will make us into devils. You see, one is beginning to wish that black was a little blacker. If we give that wish its head, later on we shall wish to see grey as black, and then to see white itself as black. Finally we shall insist on seeing everything -- God and our friends and ourselves included -- as bad, and not be able to stop doing it: we shall be fixed for ever in a universe of pure hatred.

Which is, sadly, starting to sound all to much like our current political environment.

I suspect that, like the notion that Obama is not a US citizen, or that George Bush either planned the 9/11 attacks or allowed them to happen, this is for most people what Julian Sanchez calls a symbolic belief.  They don't really believe that these people are thugs intent on murder--not in the sense that they have, with careful thought, arrived at a conclusion that they are willing to defend vigorously.  But it is pleasurable to tell yourself you believe terrible things about your enemies, and so you don't examine the thought until someone says, "Well, how about $500 on it, then?" and you think about how much it would hurt to lose $500 on, and realize that you don't actually have any reason to believe it's all that likely. 

Unfortunately, these sorts of fun pastimes are horribly corrosive to civic society.

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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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