Charlottesville, however, marks a new era of even bolder assertion of the right to threaten violence for political purposes. Gun carriers at the so-called “Unite the Right” rally acted more like a paramilitary force than as individual demonstrators. They wore similar pseudo-military outfits, including body armor. They took tactical formations to surround the site of the expected confrontation. According to Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, “They had better equipment than our state police had.” (The state police have disputed that claim.)
The carrying of firearms by random citizens into public places is typically defended as a contribution to public safety. If criminals must reckon with the possibility of armed resistance, they will hesitate to commit crimes—or so goes the theory. It’s a hard theory to prove or disprove, because the thing to be measured—“defensive gun use”—is so subjective. An altercation erupts after a traffic accident. One motorist raises his voice. The other displays a weapon. Has the weapon carrier prevented a crime? Or has the law empowered a subset of Americans to intimidate their neighbors? The Florida man who shot 17-year-old Jordan Davis dead for playing his music too loud also claimed he was acting in self-defense. If widespread gun carry enhances safety, why are countries that forbid it so much safer than the United States?
Whatever its merits, however, the theory of the crime-reducing effects of citizen carry applies only to concealed carry. Society receives the putative benefit of citizen carry only if the potential criminal does not know which potential victim might be armed.
Open carry has no such justification—and until recently, it has not needed it. Until recently, almost all states forbade the open carry of handguns. Although many Western states ignored the open carry of long guns, they did so not as a matter of policy or right, but as a left-over from their rural origins. A rancher moving about his lands may want to carry a shotgun or rifle in case predators attack his livestock. Is he supposed to put a bag over his gun? Are hunters supposed to carry their rifles in a locked case until they literally see the deer?
Today in Arizona, however, 89.8 percent of the population dwells in urban areas, a higher percentage than in Connecticut; Texas’s population has become 84.7 percent urban, higher than Delaware. Hunting is declining. The most popular rifle in the United States is the AR-15, a look-alike of the military-grade M-16 that can be used for hunting purposes only by the most skilled marksmen. Fewer and fewer American households own long guns at all. Gun sales are up because a few gun enthusiasts are accumulating miniature arsenals: In 1994, the average gun-owning household owned four weapons; by 2015, the average gun-owning household owned eight.
Over that same period, American political culture has become more polarized. Those polarities have become more extreme. And on the political right especially, the rhetoric has become more indulgent of—if not more enthusiastic about—political violence.
You can read the rest at the Atlantic Monthly.