That's the base question behind this excellent article at Slate about how the 2nd Amendment has devoured the First. As the essay points out, since the Skokie case the Supreme Court has held that public spaces are particularly important to the exercise of free speech. But since the Heller decision, state laws have allowed people to bring guns to their exercise of free speech, an exercise of their 2nd Amendment rights. Now, it's true, many states have laws against "brandishing" weapons, but it's a fine line between carrying a gun slung over your shoulder, and "brandishing" that gun. And in a crowed, the distinction between brandishing and shooting is a moot one because the police officer has to be standing at the elbow of the person "brandishing" in order to keep it from being a shooting.
If you cast your mind back to the standoff in the desert over the Bundy family, there was a reason the government didn't take anyone into custody that day, but has been rounding up people it could identify pointing guns ("brandishing" under the relevant laws, I assume; although I imagine it's a more serious crime the FBI is charging) ever since. When everybody is armed, you don't throw a lit match on that kerosene-soaked pile of rags. The same reasoning applies in Charlottesville: the police response might have led to a slaughter if they had waded into a crowd of armed people and started taking guns away by force, "force" here meaning "at gunpoint."
And how would they prove "brandishing" in the first place? And how quickly would things have gotten out of hand, escalating from fist fights to gun fights? And how does your so-called 2nd Amendment right to carry a gun in public (but not "brandish" it or shoot it?) trump my 1st Amendment right to peaceably assemble? Indeed, how quickly does a "peaceful" assembly turn violent when guns are present? It's very likely the Charlottesville police decided fisticuffs and pepper spray were less violent than bullets. In a nutshell:
Nonviolent demonstrators lose their right to assemble and express their ideas because the police are too apprehensive to shield them from violence. The right to bear arms overrides the right to free speech. And when protesters dress like militia members and the police are confused about who is with whom, chaos is inevitable.And doesn't the right to peaceably assemble include the right not to be intimidated, by the government or anyone else, as you do so? "Carrying" turns to "brandishing" turns to "shooting" so quickly we can't realistically separate them, anymore than we can separate a driver at the wheel of a car from a driver using that car as a weapon. Would anyone have objected if police had closed the streets in the area to vehicular traffic, for precisely that issue of public safety and right to peaceful assembly? Presumably they did, because the killing and injuring with a car occurred some distance from Emancipation Park.
Aside from the driver of that car, 3 people were arrested in Charlottesville; one for misdemeanor assault and battery, one for disorderly conduct, one for carrying a concealed weapon. Compare that with the running list of people arrested at Occupy Wall Street demonstrations between 2011 and 2014. I don't remember hearing of anyone carrying weapons on behalf of OWS, which may be why 300 were arrested at one protest in New York City in 2011. It is more dangerous to the police and the innocent to arrest armed protestors, especially in large numbers.
When the police are literally too afraid of armed protesters to stop a melee, First Amendment values are diminished; discussion is supplanted by disorder and even death, and conversations about “time, place, and manner” seem antiquated and trite.
Gov. McAuliffe said it plainly, in defending the police response:
“It’s easy to criticize, but I can tell you this, 80% of the people here had semiautomatic weapons," McAuliffe said.It's actually a good thing no shots were fired. But that's only because one side had the guns, and the other side declined to challenge them because of it. A well-regulated militia is necessary to the security of the state, the 2nd Amendment says. A mob of armed people is not a well-regulated militia; and suppressing the speech of others through intimidation is not providing for the security of the state.
“You saw the militia walking down the street, you would have thought they were an army ... I was just talking to the State Police upstairs; [the militia members] had better equipment than our State Police had,” McAuliffe said. “And yet not a shot was fired, zero property damage.”