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When Protesters Bear Arms Against Health-Care Reform

6 minute read
Mark Thompson / Washington

The fact that protesters at President Obama’s political events have begun showing up bearing arms may be disquieting, but it’s perfectly legal — and the Secret Service, charged with protecting the President, insists that it is not unduly alarmed by the development. That’s because while the Second Amendment guarantees Americans the right to carry guns, federal law also gives the Secret Service the right to keep gun-toting folks away from the President.

(See pictures of gun culture in the U.S.)

“These individuals were not ticketed for the events and were not waiting to go inside,” says Secret Service spokesman Ed Donovan. “They weren’t in positions outside the events that we considered a threat to the event in any way.” The Secret Service generally has three layers of protection around the President: an inner circle of agents just steps away; a secure building or arena in which the President is appearing, with restricted admission, metal detectors and bomb-sniffing dogs; and finally, an outer perimeter with checkpoints.

(See the top 10 Secret Service code names.)

But former Secret Service agent Joseph Petro thinks his former employer may be trying to put the best face on a bad situation. “The Secret Service is very concerned about this,” says Petro, who spent 23 years as an agent, including four guarding President Reagan and his family. “It’s hard enough to protect the President, and this is not helpful.” He pauses. “We are not a Third World country.”

(Read “A Brief History of the Secret Service.”)

While protesters in certain states may have the right to carry weapons to spots near presidential visits — and the Secret Service may blanket the President with protection — Petro says the guns’ presence changes the atmosphere surrounding such events. “They’re intimidating people like it’s a western saloon,” he says. And the weapons could turn a verbal clash between demonstrators into a shoot-out. “In a heated atmosphere,” Petro argues, “it’s a recipe for disaster.” Most critical, according to Petro, author of Standing Next to History: An Agent’s Life Inside the Secret Service, is the message the guns send. “These guys aren’t going to shoot the President,” he says of the protesters. “But it’s putting the idea in some nut’s head that maybe he can get a gun and try to shoot him.”

On Aug. 17, about a dozen people carried guns a block away from the Phoenix convention center where President Obama was speaking, including one man with an AR-15 assault rifle slung over his shoulder. The neatly dressed man carrying the AR-15 — who also had a holstered pistol on his hip — identified himself to a reporter from the Arizona Republic only as Chris as he argued with supporters of Obama’s health-reform efforts. Asked why he had brought the guns to the gathering, he answered, “Because I can do it. In Arizona, I still have some freedoms left.”

On Aug. 11, police arrested Richard Terry Young for having a loaded, unlicensed gun in his car near the Portsmouth, N.H., school where Obama would speak hours later about health care. A second man outside that event displayed a gun holstered to his leg. “I wanted people to remember the rights that we have and how quickly we’re losing them in this country,” William Kostric later told MSNBC. “It doesn’t take a genius to see we’re traveling down a road at breakneck speed that’s towards tyranny.” Kostric, who used to live in Arizona, said he voted for Ron Paul in the last presidential election. He carried a sign saying, “It Is Time to Water the Tree of Liberty,” a reference to Thomas Jefferson’s quote that “the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh famously wore a T shirt bearing the Jefferson quote. Kostric said he took the gun to the event to protect himself and to assert his Second Amendment right. “If you don’t exercise your rights,” he said, “you will lose them.”

(See pictures of health-care protesters on LIFE.com.)

Both Arizona and New Hampshire are “open-carry” states in which it is legal to carry visible weapons in public. But every gun-bearing protester requires the attention of the Secret Service and the local and state police who reinforce their efforts. “If the local police are drawn away to deal with these fools, then there’s a vacuum somewhere,” Petro says. “Perhaps one of those cops was supposed to be in a critical place where he or she could have stopped someone from doing something to the President. That’s a real problem.”

Neither Donovan nor Petro can recall a precedent for the recent trend of protesters carrying weapons to presidential events. But it doesn’t appear to be the result of any organized effort. The National Rifle Association, whose website encourages its members to attend and speak up at congressional town-hall meetings, didn’t respond to a request for comment on protesters’ brandishing guns. But Paul Helmke, who heads the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, says such an act “endangers all in attendance” and that even if their actions are legal, “common sense” should dictate that gun owners keep their weapons away from such gatherings. “Loaded weapons at political forums endanger all involved, distract law enforcement and end up stifling debate,” he says. “Presidential protesters need to leave their firearms at home — no exceptions.”

But people intent on defending their Second Amendment rights are unlikely to heed that particular piece of commonsense advice, Petro concedes. In response, he believes that the Secret Service should expand the perimeter around the President to keep protesters perhaps 500 yards — more than a quarter-mile — away from him (current perimeter guidelines are secret and vary by event). Extending the perimeter, he suggests, makes more sense than handcuffing those with guns. “If the Secret Service started arresting these people,” he says, “they’d have battles on their hands.”

Read “Louisville’s Bring-Your-Firearms-to-Church Day.”

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