The recent acquittal of Kyle Rittenhouse, the teenager on trial for homicide after shooting three men in August 2020 in Kenosha, Wisconsin, has aroused fears that vigilantism may become the new normal for political protests. Rittenhouse had driven to Kenosha to join armed citizens to protect private property from protesters in the aftermath of the Aug. 23, 2020, police shooting of Jacob Blake, a Black man.

In the chaos that prevailed, Rittenhouse shot and killed two protesters and wounded a third. He claimed self-defense: He said he feared that he would be disarmed and killed with his own military-style semiautomatic rifle. The jury agreed with him.

Many scholars, gun control groups and pundits are concerned that America will now see more gun violence at political events – especially racial justice protests like the one in Kenosha.

What do Americans think about the presence of armed civilians at protests? Would people attend a protest if they knew that others were armed – and would they, themselves, bring a firearm to a protest? Which social groups are more likely to approve of armed civilians in protests and which would feel intimidated by their presence and less likely to attend? My research this year suggests deep divides across party and gender lines on these important questions.

• How I did my research

I conducted a nationally representative survey of 1,000 white and 500 Black Americans earlier this year, collecting data via the survey company YouGov. Among other questions, the survey asked how appropriate is it for citizens to bring guns to protests, and how likely would respondents be to attend a protest if they knew that rally organizers or counterprotesters brought along firearms. I also asked gun owners to indicate how likely they would be to bring guns to a protest.

Here’s what I found. First, almost two-thirds of respondents (62 percent) think that bringing guns to protests is “very inappropriate.” This finding is true for Black and white Americans. Only a tiny minority (6 percent) believe that it is “very appropriate” to bring guns to protests. Women (69 percent) more than men (54 percent) found such practices “very inappropriate.”

But where we see the biggest differences in opinion is across party lines: Seventy-nine percent of Democrats and 55 percent of independents think guns in protests are “very inappropriate,” while only a third (34 percent) of Republicans feel the same. Republicans (14 percent), more so than any other grouping, believe that it is “very appropriate” to bring guns to protests. To be sure, this is a small percentage of Republicans, but as we witnessed in Wisconsin, it doesn’t take many armed people for tragedy to follow.

I also asked how likely people were to attend a protest knowing that protesters or counterprotesters were armed. A majority – 60 percent of Black and white Americans – say they would be “very unlikely” to attend a protest if guns were present. Only 7 percent of respondents are “very likely” to attend such a protest. This suggests that the presence of guns can discourage people from participating in demonstrations. The presence of guns had a more profound “chilling effect” for women (68 percent) than men (52 percent). And Democrats (68 percent) and independents (54 percent) were more likely than Republicans (48 percent) to say that the presence of guns would make them “very unlikely” to attend a protest.

•  Are Americans likely to come armed to a protest?

About one-third of Americans own firearms. I asked gun owners in the survey how likely they were to bring a gun to a political protest – 60 percent say they are “very unlikely” to do so. But 9 percent say they are “very likely” and another 11 percent say they are “somewhat likely” to come armed to a protest.

As with the other survey questions, there’s no difference between Black and white gun owners who say they are “very likely” to bring guns to a protest, but there is a difference between the number of men (12 percent) and women (3 percent) who would do so. As we have seen both in Kenosha and elsewhere, it is primarily men who show up armed at demonstrations.

When it comes to partisanship, there is little difference in the number of Democratic (6 percent) and Republican (11 percent) gun owners who are “very likely” to bring a gun to a protest. However, where the two groups differ is in the numbers who say they are “very unlikely” to do so. Three-fourths (77 percent) of Democrats but 46 percent of Republican gun owners say they are “very unlikely” to bring a gun to a protest.

In summary, this 2021 survey indicates that a large majority of Americans do not want guns at protests – a strong signal to elected officials to address the matter. A worrisome finding, however, is that the potential presence of guns at protests can produce a “chilling effect” among women and Democrats, but not among men or Republicans.

• Why is this important?

Social protest in America is a form of constitutionally protected speech that is a critical foundation of democracy. Studies show that politicians learn about citizens’ demands from protest activity and are more likely to be responsive to those demands. If guns at protests “chill” attendance, that could have implications for democratic responsiveness down the line.

If women and Democrats are more likely to be intimidated by firearms and thus less likely to attend protests, their policy preferences may become less visible – and their elected officials might also be less attentive to their preferences. Research shows that women often have different policy priorities from men. This is also true for Democrats and Republicans.

If any group becomes discouraged from attending political protests because of the presence of guns, their voices could be muted and their issues less well represented at all levels of government. That would be a huge loss for American democracy.

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