Guns in Public

Jason Zengerle and Megan McArdle debate whether gun-toting protesters are a threat

This article is from the archive of our partner .

No one is suggesting that being openly armed at a crowded protest is a good idea, but The Atlantic's Megan McArdle is arguing it's not as bad as we might think. Protesters drew criticism in past weeks by bringing guns and even an assault rifle to health care town halls, one of which featured President Obama, inspiring debate on the wisdom of allowing guns at protests. McArdle, though conceding the protester's behavior is "stupid," isn't afraid to consider their side of this. But The New Republic's Jason Zengerle isn't convinced.

  • A Symbolic Belief  McArdle noted that armed protesters carry guns legally and openly. "The rate of crime associated with legal gun possession or carrying seems to be very low," she wrote. "Guns, it turn out, do not turn ordinary people into murderers." McArdle called fear of gun-toters a "symbolic belief" without much merit. "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."
  • Spreading Secret Service Thin  Zengerle pointed out that "the Secret Service's capacities aren't infinite." He argued, "Making sure gun-toting protesters don't have a sight line on the president" takes up Secret Service resources that would be better used looking out for real threats. "Keeping a constant eye on them takes up resources--resources the Secret Service might need to thwart people who do mean to do harm to the president," he wrote.
  • Armed Protesters Not a Threat  McArdle countered that, although dangerous people are out there, those openly carrying guns are not among them. "It is entirely possible that some nut will shoot someone at a protest, or try to shoot the president," she wrote. "But I have no reason to think that the fellows brazenly carrying pistols on their hip will be among those nuts." She followed-up, "Something like 90% of homicides are committed by people with criminal records, i.e. people who probably cannot legally own a gun." She wrote, "Violent criminals are not like the rest of us." Why not? Consider the following:
    You have access to fatal weapons every day. How often, after a fight with someone, have you been seriously tempted to run them over with your car? Or grab a knife from the rack in the kitchen and brandish it at them? Put rat poison in their morning coffee? Or take an exacto blade to their throat while asleep? The men in the readership, at least, could be fairly confident of their ability to stab their spouse to death whenever she says something really awful. Yet none of you have done it.
  • Gambling on Assassination  Underneath the discussion of security and gun rights, there's another debate taking place. McArdle challenged those who disagreed to bet $500 on whether an armed protester would take a shot at Obama. McArdle anticipated (correctly) that no one would take the bet. "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," she wrote.

    Zengerle called this "offensive," writing, "maybe they just have enough basic decency not to wager on whether or not Obama--or anyone else, for that matter--is going to get shot."

    McArdle shot back, "I'm betting on good behavior, which doesn't seem that offensive to me."

    "People very seldom bet on something they don't actually want to happen," Zengerle countered. "I think McArdle really needs to come up with a better test for determining what's a real belief and what's a symbolic belief."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.