Have We Lost Our Freedom to Peaceably Assemble?

This past week’s acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse on all charges, including the most minor misdemeanor, raises the question of whether Americans have now lost the right to peacefully assemble as guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U. S. Constitution. That amendment reads, in pertinent part, as follows:

“Congress shall make no law respecting . . . the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Today’s problem is not so much that Congress has done anything contrary to that Constitutional proscription. The problem is that the Kyle Rittenhouse verdict apparently allows, at least in the state of Wisconsin, any 17-year-old to carry an assault rifle to intimidate the folks attending your or my peaceful demonstration. In other words, it would appear that our Constitutional right to peaceably assemble has been eroded from the inside out due to our willingness to glorify the Second Amendment over the First.

Imagine, just for the sake of argument, that you and your family wish to assemble in front of your state’s capitol building for the purpose of expressing, say, your support for state funding for a new school. Now, suppose someone who opposes your point of view—let’s say it’s a 17-year-old high school dropout—shows up brandishing the newest model assault weapon with plenty of ammunition. Do you hang around and continue to express your point of view? Or do you bustle your family back to wherever you parked the car?

What this verdict teaches us is that in at least one state, and probably in a dozen or more of the states that Donald Trump carried in 2016, it now just takes one individual with a weapon to destroy “the right of the people peaceably to assemble.” And maybe that was the whole point. Maybe by showing up with assault weapons, folks on the political extremes were hoping to intimidate the peaceful majority into shutting up and going back home.

Spirited Reasoners keep looking for a time and place in our nation where thoughtful debate can still occur. But in what appears to be approximately half of these formerly United States, the folks willing to carry the largest weapons now have the legal machinery they need to cow the rest of us into an awkward silence, at least when it comes to mass peaceful protests.