The events of January 6, 2021 were tragic and shameful. Five people lost their lives as a result of the failed attempt to overthrow our elected government. But without the federal and D.C. gun laws in place, it could have been much worse.
Scenes from around the country this summer demonstrate that, in the absence of legal restrictions, some protestors will openly carry firearms to rallies, protests, and riots despite the very real risk of violence and intimidation. The events at the Michigan Legislature on April 30, when protestors stormed the capitol with guns, shows how these activities can escalate and cause harmful effects to democratic deliberation even when shots aren’t fired. Legislators reported their terror as gunmen stood watch over the gallery, and the protesters’ actions caused a temporary adjournment of the legislative body. Yet, unlike in Michigan, guns weren’t a central part of the story about what happened in Washington, D.C., on January 6. Strict local and federal gun laws are at least part of the reason why.
D.C. law bars openly carrying firearms and restricts both concealed carry and the types of firearms that one can transport or possess. The current laws have been upheld against Second Amendment challenge, with judges crediting the government’s compelling interests in public safety as reason for banning select semi-automatic weapons and large-capacity magazines. Federal law also bars gun possession not only in the Capitol building itself but also on Capitol grounds, which cover almost 300 acres of the District. This law too has been upheld against constitutional challenge. As the D.C. Circuit said in a unanimous opinion upholding the law, “there are few, if any, government buildings more sensitive than the national legislature at the very seat of its operations.” These gun laws are specifically designed to safeguard public spaces and protect the seat of government from violence.
Most of those who joined the rallies in D.C.—even those rioters who unlawfully stormed the building—seem to have largely followed these restrictions. Reports suggest that of the arrests made that day, just a handful involved weapons violations. If the federal and local gun laws had not been in place, law enforcement almost certainly would have confronted protestors threatening to overrun the Capitol who were not just angry but armed—as in Michigan. Police exercised enormous restraint with the rioters, and some experts have questioned whether they were too restrained. But would law enforcement have reacted the same way if those men and women were visibly armed? Could they have done so? One woman was tragically shot in the coup attempt. But could Capitol police have taken selfies and resorted to other de-escalation techniques if the rioters breaking down doors and smashing windows were armed to the teeth? Allowing visibly armed insurrectionists to storm a government building with express plans to disrupt one of Congress’s most solemn constitutional duties without firing shots seems unimaginable. As jarring as the images of rioters storming the Capitol was, the reaction would have been—and should have been—much more explosive had the D.C. rioters been carrying the same semi-automatic rifles as those occupying the Michigan legislature.
One value of a bright-line prophylactic rule—like the ban on open carry or guns on Capitol grounds—is that it removes the need for difficult judgment calls in the midst of tense confrontations. If those present had displayed guns, police’s authority to detain and arrest would have been clear without any further need for provocation or mining of motive. When the siege started, police questioning whether to draw their weapons or fall back did not need to add to their calculation the risk of immense amounts of firepower pouring into one of the Nation’s most protected locations. The presence, and apparent deterrent effect, of these clear legal rules was at least one thing law enforcement had on its side that day.
Opponents of gun regulation often argue that restrictions on firearms in certain places or spaces only harms law-abiding citizens because criminals don’t obey the law. They decry “pretend gun-free zones” as nothing more than target-rich environments for ill-intentioned bad guys. But the failed coup attempt shows that some criminals actually do obey gun laws. And the existence of those laws helped ensure that the tinderbox ignited January 6 at the Nation’s Capital wasn’t more lethal and destructive.