A protest in Austin, Texas, this weekend became a Charlottesville-in-miniature as anti-immigrant activists squared off with anti-racist factions over the city’s sanctuary policy. Police officers were trying to escort the opposing groups marching toward the state capitol when a fight erupted.
Police had fought some marchers to the ground when Robert Patrick Hewitt, 29, allegedly leveled a pistol at some of the officers and walked toward them. According to the Austin American-Statesman, officers said Hewitt was “actively targeting” them.
Hewitt was apprehended and charged with aggravated assault on a public servant with a deadly weapon, which is a felony. But in a fractious era for America, the question of how cities should balance free speech, loose gun laws, and public safety is far from resolved.
Just yesterday, officials in Charlottesville, Virginia, denied a permit for a 2018 demonstration organized by the white supremacist Jason Kessler for the anniversary of last August’s Unite the Right rally. Flanked by heavily armed militias and gun-carrying protesters, police refused to intervene between marchers and anti-racist counter-protesters as the event devolved into deadly violence and chaos.
At least one Ku Klux Klan member attending the rally was packing a pistol. During the fracas, he fired toward a counter-protester with impunity.
Virginia allows the open carrying of firearms and prohibits municipalities from imposing additional restrictions of their own. Exceptions in state law prohibit open carry without a license in a handful of populous areas, including Richmond and Fairfax County. A separate law makes it a crime for militias and other organized armed groups to assemble in a way that disrupts public safety. But the state’s leaders, like their counterparts in much of the country, have no easy way to take action ahead of time to bar licensed carriers from bringing guns to public gatherings.
Governor Terry McAuliffe used his executive power to ban guns at future protests at the Robert E. Lee monument in Richmond. The statue sits on patches of state-owned land, and as governor, McAuliffe is not bound by pre-emption statutes that apply to local authorities. A report by former U.S. Attorney Timothy Heaphy commissioned after the clashes in Charlottesville recommended that the state legislature amend those laws so that guns could be kept away from such large and contentious gatherings.
In Tennessee, several small cities have had to spend tens of thousands of dollars to install and staff metal detectors at the entrances to white nationalist rallies and similar events. Under a state law lobbied for by the National Rifle Association, the extraordinary measures are required before political events can be declared gun-free.
The issue may come to the fore again in 2018 when the white supremacist Richard Spencer speaks at the University of Cincinnati this March. Like Virginia, Ohio is one of the 36 states that prohibit municipalities from imposing their own gun restrictions, including during protests.
It’s not just right-wingers who might show up with guns when Spencer speaks. Representatives of the Cincinnati chapter of Black Lives Matter have said that in light of the violence in Charlottesville, they will consider arming themselves at demonstrations.