The simple fact is that an armed citizenry is not the basis for our freedoms. Our freedoms rest on a moral consensus, enshrined in law, that in a democratic republic we work out our differences through reasoned, and sometimes raucous, argument. Free elections and open debate are not rooted in violence or the threat of violence. They are precisely the alternative to violence, and guns have no place in them.
On the contrary, violence and the threat of violence have always been used by those who wanted to bypass democratic procedures and the rule of law. Lynching was the act of those who refused to let the legal system do its work. Guns were used on election days in the Deep South during and after Reconstruction to intimidate black voters and take control of state governments.
Yes, I have raised the racial issue, and it is profoundly troubling that firearms should begin to appear with some frequency at a president’s public events only now, when the president is black. Race is not the only thing at stake here, and I have no knowledge of the personal motivations of those carrying the weapons. But our country has a tortured history on these questions, and we need to be honest about it. Those with the guns should know what memories they are stirring.