As a Jeep drove into a crowd of anti-police violence protesters seeking to shut down a busy highway in Aurora, Colorado, gunshots rang out.
No one was hit by the Jeep, according to police, but two protesters were struck by gunfire and ended up at local hospitals.
Police say the bullets were meant for the SUV and fired by one of the protesters. One man was arrested on multiple counts, including attempted murder. The rally was to protest the death of Elijah McClain, who died following an encounter with police in 2019.
“I heard the screams first and then I heard gunshots,” said Tay Anderson, a Denver School Board member and community organizer who was at that protest when the shooting happened. “I was super concerned, mainly for the women and children that were present.”
The shooting at the protest in Aurora was just one of several similar incidents at protests across the country, from an apparent accident that injured three in Louisville, to a woman accused of pointing a gun at protesters in Boise, to the killing of an armed protester by a driver in Austin, Texas.
What is clear after months of protests against stay-at-home orders and police violence is that the presence of weapons at protests is ratcheting up tensions at a time when stress is high for protesters, counterprotesters and law enforcement alike.
“Anytime you introduce firearms to any event it just makes it more complicated,” said Harry Glidden, Aurora police deputy chief.
While some racial justice protesters have said they have armed themselves for their own protection, especially in the wake of violent law enforcement reaction to protests in Portland, police say it complicates their ability to keep the peace.
“To those people who say they’re not safe, I tell them they’re certainly safe from the police if they’re being peaceful,” Glidden said. “Whether they feel safe around fellow protesters or not, that’s a question you’d have to ask them.”
Carrying a loaded firearm at a protest is an inherently dangerous situation.
Safety experts like Brett Bass, a firearms instructor in Bellevue, Washington, says responsible gun owners should look to stay away from potential confrontations in the first place, “avoiding large crowds of potentially armed people in crowded areas and chaotic situations, things like that.”
That describes a lot of protests in America right now.
Some protesters say they have armed themselves for their own protection. That may be a reaction to the presence at many racial justice protests of armed counterprotesters — mostly white and some members of the militia movement — who have confronted anti-racism rallies in at least 33 states, according to a review by Guns & America
Thanks to permissive state gun laws, protesters in many states are legally allowed to carry their weapons in these crowded and chaotic situations.
Bass said intensive training is important for anyone who carries for self-defense. And if gun owners do decide to carry at protests, that training is only more critical. “In extremely crowded spaces like that, firearms employment becomes extremely challenging because the risk of collateral damage is very high.”
The problem, Bass says, is that some gun owners feel emboldened by their weapons rather than seeing them as a tool of last resort.
“Many people have adopted a very wrong-headed idea that,” Bass said, “ ‘I carry a gun and as a result, I am allowed to do unsafe things, because in the event a problem occurs, I'll be able to use my gun to fix the problem.’”
Following the shooting incident at the Aurora protest, the leader of the Colorado gun group Rally For Our Rights tweeted an offer to train armed protesters.
“People need to be taking a good, hard look at the tension, emotion, unpredictability of these protests,” said Lesley Hollywood, the group’s founder. “ … There are people who just truly need to say, ‘You know what, I'm not trained enough to carry a firearm into this situation.’ ”
Rally For Our Rights advocates for unrestricted gun rights. Hollywood believes protesters have a right to carry but, in this moment, need to think through that decision.
“Just because you can doesn’t mean you should,” she said.
Hollywood says that Rally For Our Rights has no plans to open carry at protest events, though she has plenty of experience doing so, in coordination with an internal security team and in consultation with local law enforcement. Right now, she believes it would only “escalate the situation.”
“For me, as someone who has organized very large, hundreds of people, open carry rallies and protests, I have to understand that when I make the decision to lead one of these events, part of it is my responsibility to make sure everybody stays safe,” Hollywood explained.
She thinks that the groups behind demonstrations both against and in-favor of police need to know if protesters are carrying weapons and plan accordingly.
“The organizers of these need to understand what’s happening internally,” she said, “because people are being put at risk, as we saw in Aurora when two people were shot.”
These armed confrontations at protests are also prompting legal questions.
“I think you will see a number of states and localities move to ban weapons, visible weapons in public places,” said Robert Leider, who studies self-defense issues as a professor at George Mason’s Antonin Scalia School of Law.
Ironically, a Supreme Court decision hailed by gun rights advocates for affirming Second Amendment protections could open the door to restrictions on armed protests. The 2008 case District of Columbia v. Heller recognized the right of individuals to possess firearms but also acknowledged broad powers to regulate guns.
“Heller says that you can ban guns entirely from sensitive places,” Leider said. “And there's an issue of what constitutes a sensitive place.”
Most gun laws are made at the state-level, leaving a patchwork of rules. A shooting in one state justified as self-defense could be considered murder in another.
“A lot of the gun carrying at the protesters have been probably with the intent to be provocative,” Leider said. “One of the crucial questions is what duties do individuals have to avoid conflict?”
Another question will be proportionality, according to Jacob Charles, executive director of Duke University’s Center For Firearms Law.
“If someone threatens to punch you, you don't get to take out a gun and shoot them,” he said. “And that would not be proportional.”
Some states require people to retreat if it’s reasonable, others with so-called Stand Your Ground laws do not. What is reasonable, of course, is subjective. And Charles says the often emotional debates around conservative states adopting laws aimed at giving broader latitude to use of deadly force can muddy the understanding of what constitutes an acceptable response.
“What we're seeing is there’s confusion,” he said. “Especially in the public imagination about what self-defense allows you to do now, especially kind of the rhetoric and symbolism around Stand Your Ground laws.”
Many gun owners do recognize that steering clear of conflict is ideal. Whether courts see that as a legal obligation is yet to be seen.
Guns & America is a public media reporting project on the role of guns in American life.