Stephanie Keith / Reuters

Few places in the United States concentrate as much history in 14 acres as the grounds of the Virginia state capitol. Thomas Jefferson designed the capitol building; Patrick Henry laid its cornerstone; in 1807, Chief Justice John Marshall sat there to preside over the treason trial of former Vice President Aaron Burr. The capitol’s second floor displays a Carrara-marble statue of George Washington made by sculptor Jean-Antoine Houdon, considered the most accurate rendering of its subject. In 1861, a state convention voted there to secede; in 1865, United States Colored Troops re-raised the Stars and Stripes above it as Robert E. Lee’s retreating troops burned the city around them. A few days later, Abraham Lincoln stood at the equestrian statue of George Washington in Capitol Square and—for the first and only time—addressed an audience of freed slaves. In 1990, Lawrence Douglas Wilder, the first African American ever elected governor of a state, was sworn in on the capitol’s north steps.

For more than 200 years, Capitol Square has played an important role in the creation of American self-government, in its near destruction, in its restoration, and in its uncertain, ongoing progress toward reform and reconciliation. If there is holy ground in America, Capitol Square is part of it.

For me, its significance is personal. I grew up a few blocks from the capitol, played on its grounds as a boy, and began my journalistic career there at a time when citizens entered and left the building without any security or challenge. It is the place where I first saw the workings of American self-government, its possibilities and its limits. I mourn any dimming of its civil luster.

Only history will tell us whether the massive gun-rights rally that ended peaceably Monday afternoon was part of the drama of self-government or of social dissolution. Police estimated that 22,000 people attended to protest against proposed gun-rights legislation—well short of the 50,000 organizers predicted, but still an impressive turnout. The life of the city was thoroughly disrupted with street closures and security checkpoints. A few days before, Governor Ralph Northam, reacting to threats on the internet, had declared a state of emergency, banned all weapons from the square, and surrounded the protest area with metal fencing to control entry and exit.

On Monday, hundreds of protesters stood outside the designated protest area with the weapons they fear the Virginia General Assembly will limit. Their presence underscores the many contradictions of this strange and ominous event.

To begin with, of course, the celebration of firearms took place on the 35th celebration of the federal Martin Luther King Jr. holiday (within that lies the contradiction that the Commonwealth of Virginia until 2000 tried to use the same day to honor King and the Confederate generals Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson). King’s gift to the national conversation was a commitment to nonviolence, and his life was ended by an assassin with a firearm. Second, the day of the march had come to be known in Virginia as Lobby Day, a day on which citizens could gather in the square and, in the words of the First Amendment, “peaceably assemble, and … petition the government for redress of grievances.”

That, in one sense, was what many of the protesters in Richmond Monday were doing—politics in the purest sense, as they registered their opposition to planned gun-control legislation pending before the Virginia legislature. That opposition was one they have every right to feel and to express. This was, at one level, pure democratic politics.

But note who was not in Capitol Square on Monday. The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence had also planned to assemble and petition for gun-control legislation—as it had done in peaceful competition with gun-rights groups in previous years. This year, because of the threats of armed violence surrounding the gun-rights march, that gun-control demonstration had to be canceled. The delegate from Manassas, Lee Carter, the South’s only socialist legislator, went into hiding because of death threats. Carter had not, in fact, sponsored an anti-gun measure, but gun-rights groups spread disinformation on the internet that he had done so; his life—and his ability to function as a legislator—was endangered.

One group’s politics canceled those of others, in other words. Self-government in a democratic society is supposed to follow a model of openness—different ideas and points of view compete in a “marketplace of ideas” for the support of the people and their representatives. That model doesn’t work when one side kills the other, or even threatens to.

This is the contradiction at the heart of the national dialogue about the Second Amendment. As Justice John Paul Stevens wrote in his 2010 dissent in McDonald v. City of Chicago, the “right to keep and bear arms,” is fundamentally “dissimilar from those [the Supreme Court has] recognized in its capacity to undermine the security of others … Firearms may be used to kill another person.”

Second Amendment activists have, over the years, gone to great lengths to obscure the difference between gun rights and genuine civil liberties, especially the freedom of speech. After Virginia Governor Ralph Northam banned weapons from the square, gun-rights groups rushed to court to seek invalidation of the order. According to news reports, their lawyers “argued that prohibiting rallygoers from carrying guns would violate their Second Amendment right to bear arms and their First Amendment right to free speech” because “carrying guns is a form of symbolic speech.”

This is a potentially deadly confusion. The freedom to buy, own, and carry firearms, whatever its scope, is in no respect like the freedom of speech. Speech consists of words and launches ideas. “Symbolic speech” refers to signs, flags, photographs, and gestures that express those words and ideas. A gun is not merely a symbol; it is not like words or ideas. It is an instrument of violence and death, and its display amid a crowd is a threat.

The right to bear arms in political debate is not the power to speak for oneself; it is, at least implicitly, the power to silence others. It is not the right to persuade; it is the right to terrorize. It is not the right to participate in civil society; it is the power to threaten to disrupt, even to destroy it. As the historian Jill Lepore wrote in The New Yorker in 2012, “When carrying a concealed weapon for self-defense is understood not as a failure of civil society, to be mourned, but as an act of citizenship, to be vaunted, there is little civilian life left.”

This story is part of the project “The Battle for the Constitution,” in partnership with the National Constitution Center.

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