The Case of Mark Hughes, Or Don’t Carry at a Protest

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I want to share some thoughts on one of the minor subplots in the Dallas police ambush. Mark Hughes was one of the protesters at the demonstration where the ambush took place. He came with a camo t-shirt and a rifle slung over his shoulder. To be clear, Hughes had every legal right to do this under Texas law. He was not breaking any law. Dallas police briefly identified him as a suspect in the case, at different points calling him a “suspect” or “person of interest,” noting that it was a rifle which had been used against police officers that night. The alert went out on Twitter, with a picture of Hughes with his gun. Happily, everyone proceeded from that point in the best way possible. A friend alerted Hughes that he’d been identified. Hughes removed his camo shirt and flagged down a police officer to turn over his gun. He was taken into custody, questioned and released around 1am. As Hughes and others noted, it was a misunderstanding that might easily have cost him his life.

There have been some graphic and telling videos demonstrating the very different ways police react to whites and African-Americans open-carrying in public places.

Here’s one …

As I remarked at the time, my main surprise is that they found a black guy to participate in this experiment. In any case, the racial disparity is obvious. But this is a case where I don’t think the racial disparity is the main story. Hughes may have been totally within his legal rights. But his actions were really only barely less stupid than the jackasses who terrorize folks at the local Bennigans or Home Depot by ‘legally’ walking into a public establishment with an AR-15.

Why do you bring a rifle to a peaceful protest? I get it. You do it as a message of self-assertion and power in the face of dehumanization and powerless. It’s still stupid; it’s not the right or a safe way to send that message. And much than Hughes, who again was doing something that lots and lots of people are doing these days, this is a good illustration of why these laws are stupid, why the whole idea making society more ‘safe’ by arming everyone to the teeth is idiotic.

Of course the cops wanted to talk to Hughes. He was at the protest carrying a rifle when a bunch of police officers were gunned down by someone with a rifle. They’d be crazy not to want to talk to him. A witness allegedly reported – wrongly – that she saw him firing or participating in the attack in some way. But that’s exactly the kind of misunderstanding that you’d expect in a chaotic situation when someone’s shooting people and you see someone carrying the kind of gun doing the shooting.

Civilians openly carrying weapons in civilian spaces is a signal of inherent menace. People talk about the Old West. But the actual Old West had pretty intense regulation of firearms. You weren’t allowed to bring them into town or in many cases had to turn them in when you went into the town proper. Ownership of firearms was widespread. But people weren’t required to think stupid things about firearms, as people seem to be today. As someone, I can’t remember who, said about the Dallas protests, the protests themselves were a good exemplar of a democratic society: civilians peaceably assembling to protest police abuses under the protection of the police themselves. Unlike the imbecile Lt. Gov. of Texas claims, there’s nothing remotely contradictory about this. Indeed, it’s the essence of democratic society. Introducing civilian firearms into that mix — especially openly brandished for dramatic effect — is simply not compatible with that picture. At a minimum it makes possible potential tragic confusion.

When I heard the Hughes story I felt thankful Hughes hadn’t lost his life amidst the chaos and confusion two nights ago. But it was still stupid and irresponsible to be carrying at the protest. More importantly, it’s an example of why expansive open carry laws are stupid, illiberal and dangerous. It’s not Hughes’ fault those laws are on the books.

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