SPLC president: Charlottesville shows states need to change open carry laws

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A car slams into a group of counter protestors following a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday, Aug. 12, 2017. (Photo: Ryan M. Kelly/The Daily Progress)

The president of the Southern Poverty Law Center says the events at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville earlier this month show that states need to change open carry laws.

In a piece published to the organization’s website last week, SPLC President Richard Cohen reminded readers of the armed men at the “Unite the Right” event held a couple weeks ago.

“We’ve all seen the pictures from Charlottesville,” Cohen wrote. “Peaceful protesters being met with men carrying military-style weapons. Many of those unarmed were probably intimidated. I certainly think I would have been.”

Echoing a chorus of gun control groups who blamed the violence in Charlottesville on the NRA, Cohen said state legislatures have tied citizens “into a constitutional knot.” He said if a football game or a national park can be considered a “sensitive place” that bans firearms, why can’t a public assembly also be considered sensitive? He answered his own question.

“A Virginia statute passed in 1997 that precludes Charlottesville from exercising any common sense in such situations,” Cohen wrote. “Specifically, Virginia’s law says no city, town, or county in the state can enact any local gun law or administrative policy not authorized by state statute.”

It’s worth noting that no shots were fired in Charlottesville on Aug. 12. Several physical altercations and pepper spray incidents unfolded early in the day, and ultimately, a vehicle was the weapon used to kill 32-year-old Heather Heyer, and injure 19 others.

Still, the violence opened the door for groups to clamp down on the perceived threat of firearms at such events. Prior to the rally in Charlottesville, the American Civil Liberties Union defended those who put on the event, arguing for the group’s First Amendment rights after they faced permit issues.

“It appears that the City’s revocation of the permit is based only upon public opposition to the message of the demonstration, which would constitute a violation of the organizers’ fundamental First Amendment rights,” the ACLU of Virginia wrote in a letter to the Charlottesville City Council.

But last week, the ACLU said it would no longer stand up for hate groups that protest with guns.

“The events of Charlottesville require any judge, any police chief and any legal group to look at the facts of any white-supremacy protests with a much finer comb,” said ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero. “If a protest group insists, ‘No, we want to be able to carry loaded firearms,’ well, we don’t have to represent them. They can find someone else.”

For Cohen, it’s simple: guns and public protests don’t mix.

“The events in Charlottesville…prove that the combination is a recipe for disaster,” he said. “Mayors and other local officials should demand that state legislatures temper their open-carry laws with a little common sense.”