Baltimore's Calm Complicates NRA Storyline

The story of a heroic gun owner turns out not to be true.

on April 29, 2015 in Baltimore, Maryland.

Photographer: Andrew Burton

This might not have been the picture that the National Rifle Association ad-meisters were hoping for: Wednesday evening saw the civil unrest in Baltimore evolve into something much less threatening -- a media farce. At 10 p.m., as the second night of a curfew descended, the intersection of North Avenue and Pennsylvania Avenue was bustling but hardly violent. Maryland Representative Elijah Cummings, who represents the neighborhood and much of the city, walked from corner to corner with a bullhorn

"I don't want anybody to be arrested," said Cummings. "Nobody. Life is too short. Move on."

The advice sunk in. By 10:30, a police garrison that had assembled along North Avenue was left with almost nothing to do. The only people left on the street were reporters and a few protesters who were effectively posing for them -- as well as a few hecklers who tried and failed to get a rise out of Geraldo Rivera. 

It was a far cry from the panic that the NRA had publicly fretted about. On April 27, the gun group's Facebook page approvingly linked to a Breitbart News column and quoted its first lines. "Videos of rioters wreaking havoc in Baltimore and photos of them risking the lives of innocents by punching, throwing objects, and, in one instance, drawing back a knife with which to stab a bystander were reminders that Stand Your Ground laws are an antidote for brazen in-your-face attacks on city streets," wrote the columnist, Awr Hawkins. "While these laws do not affect people peacefully protesting an incident or a situation with which they do not agree, the laws would affect rioters who physically attack innocents, if those attacks rise to the level of putting lives at risk. "

Stand Your Ground laws, which permit homeowners to use deadly force to protect themselves and their property, became a subject of national debate after the 2012 killing of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by a homeowner who alleged the teen assaulted him.

I spent many hours over three days walking between protests, fires, and occasional brawls in Baltimore. The only guns I saw stayed on the hips, or around the shoulders, of police. Many times, I saw citizens -- some of them loudly declaring their membership in gangs -- using ad hoc crowd control tactics to shut down arguments and move unpredictable people away from lines of the police. 

In other words, I never saw anything to back up the thesis of America's gun lobby. Quite the opposite. As Sam Biddle reported in Gawker, the NRA shared (on Facebook and Twitter) a second Breitbart story about how a reporter was "saved from a mob of rioters by a Baltimore business owner armed with a shotgun." The reporter himself contradicted that immediately.


The operating thesis of the NRA and gun rights campaigners was that the lack of weapons in the hands of law-abiding citizens, in a state with very low gun ownership, had made the unrest worse. Yet as of Thursday, there is no evidence that citizens of Baltimore or its suburbs are snapping up guns. A seller at Clyde's Sports Shop, just down the highway from Baltimore in the town of Halethorpe, said that there had been no surge of gun sales in the last week. Bob Warnick, picking up the phone at The Gun Shop in Essex, said the same thing -- "same as last week." None of the gun sellers within a short drive of the city reported any uptick in sales.

That could change, and there's more to the Second Amendment theory of riot control. The argument is not that citizens would have opened fire on each other; it's that if citizens were armed, criminals would think twice about messing with them. "We know, in the world that surrounds us, there are terrorists and home invaders and drug cartels and car-jackers and knock-out gamers and rapers, haters, campus killers, airport killers, shopping-mall killers, road-rage killers, and killers who scheme to destroy our country with massive storms of violence against our power grids, or vicious waves of chemicals or disease that could collapse the society that sustains us all," said NRA executive vice president Wayne LaPierre last year. 

In Baltimore, a similarly swollen number of threats to public safety were stopped by people who used their hands and words -- and nothing else. If politics is moving past the "law and order" paradigm that divided the suburbs and cities for decades, of people fleeing urban centers to arm themselves against criminals, Baltimore may offer more proof. For all the flack Kentucky Senator Rand Paul got for joking about avoiding the city, it was telling that one of the Senate's most resolute defenders of the Second Amendment said absolutely nothing about citizens arming themselves.