In all the finger pointing following the May 31 demonstration downtown, one of the responsible parties is getting a pass. That’s the Georgia General Assembly.
When I read the memo that Athens-Clarke County Police Chief Cleveland Spruill submitted to ACC Assistant Manager Deborah Lonon, the sentence that jumped out at me was the one about the armed demonstrators asserting their rights under Georgia’s open carry law when police confronted them. The police couldn’t extract them from a potentially volatile situation as long as they weren’t pointing their weapons at anyone. In Georgia, that’s a felony that can send you away for up to 20 years. But as long as you resist the impulse to do that, you’re good. Pictures posted on Facebook showed that these guys were savvy enough to keep their weapons pointed at the ground.
Spruill’s account has been widely disputed, but no one disagrees that armed demonstrators were in the crowd for some period that day. I’m not going to re-litigate the performance of the police that night. Absolutely nothing qualifies me to do that. I wasn’t there, and even if I had been, I still wouldn’t be qualified, not knowing what they knew or having been trained to do what they do. But I think it’s worth calling attention to how Georgia’s open carry law raises the odds of police conduct like what’s outraged much of the community.
I’m going to leave Chief Spruill out of this and talk about how the imaginary Chief Jones, whom I just made up, might see things as he surveys a scene featuring armed demonstrators. As a dedicated public servant, he understands his mission as protecting life and property while also protecting the protestors in the exercise of their First Amendment right of peaceful assembly. Although it’s possible for him to do all that in the presence of people armed with serious weaponry like assault rifles, he thinks that his odds are dramatically better if he can reduce the threat level by extracting the gunslingers from the tinderbox, leaving everybody else in peace to march, chant, sing and whatever other benign pursuits they’re moved to.
Trouble is that Georgia’s open carry law leaves Chief Jones only two ways of dealing with armed demonstrators, both of which suck. One is to keep a wary eye on them until they threaten or, God forbid, shoot somebody, which does nothing to improve the tone of the proceedings by lowering the threat level in a situation where emotions are already running high. The other is to invoke whatever emergency powers are available to him, order the crowd to disperse and arrest those who refuse to comply.
But if he goes that route, he has to be very careful not to give even the appearance of singling out the gun enthusiasts for this treatment, exposing his government employer to liability for denying them their rights under Georgia’s open carry law. The order to disperse has to be enforced against everybody or nobody. And if, in Chief Jones’ estimation, the threat level is too high, the crowd too big, and compliance too spotty, out comes the tear gas, sponge projectiles and other persuaders, aborting the demonstrators’ exercise of their First Amendment right to peacefully assemble.
I have no idea whether any of this crossed Chief Spruill’s mind. But as a conscientious, dedicated public servant, fictional Chief Jones thought about all of it and realized fully that Georgia’s open carry law backs him into an unenviable corner. He has to choose between waiting for armed rowdies to threaten or shoot somebody, on the one hand, and disbanding a largely peaceful crowd to get the gun slingers off the scene, on the other.
I had a hard time following the Facebook theorists’ arguments that Chief Spruill is a willing agent of white supremacy, rather than a dedicated public servant like Chief Jones. But if I convert Jones into a tool of white supremacy, or even a well-meaning bumbler looking to excuse his failures, Georgia’s open carry law, a headache for good-guy Chief Jones, becomes, for bad-guy Chief Jones, a convenient pretext for shutting down a protest. So Georgia’s open carry law is a twofer, a perverse incentive for both good cops and bad cops to gas people.
Does it have to be this way in an open carry state? No, it doesn’t.
For example, Alabama, which Georgians like to disparage, prohibits possession of firearms by civilians within 1,000 feet of a public demonstration. But what’s a no-brainer in Alabama is a bridge too far in Georgia.
Even Mississippi, which, like Georgia, generally bars local governments from regulating firearms, makes an exception for weapons at a “political rally, parade or official political meeting.” Several cities in the state avail themselves of that exemption.
In North Carolina, another open carry state, it’s a common-law offense to “go armed to the terror of the public.” North Carolina courts have recognized that as an offense as far back as the early 19th Century, and its Supreme Court upheld it as recently as 1968. A Fort Bragg soldier found out a few years ago how it works there. He walked through a shopping mall in full dress uniform carrying his service weapon to have his picture taken at a photo studio. Alarmed shoppers called 911, the police cleared the mall, and he was charged with “going armed to the terror of the public,” a misdemeanor in North Carolina.
Meanwhile, Georgia’s romance with guns is a gift to the tear gas industry. One of the world’s largest producers is Combined Systems, tucked away in Jamestown, PA, population 617.
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