Keeping it safe for legislators and democracy in Springfield this week

Every protester should leave their guns at home. And any lawmaker who can’t be bothered to wear a face mask should stay out of town.

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Demonstrators carrying guns hold a rally in front of the Michigan state capitol building to protest the governor’s stay-at-home order on May 14, 2020, in Lansing, Michigan.

Scott Olson/Getty Images

Two ignorant lawmakers say they don’t know if they’ll wear face masks when the Illinois Legislature meets in Springfield this week.

They have been asked by their legislative leaders to wear masks. Even a cursory understanding of how COVID-19 spreads should make it obvious to them that they should wear masks. And they’ll be putting others at risk if they do not.

“It boils down, in my book, to a matter of personal choice,” state Rep. Brad Halbrook, R-Shelbyville, told the Sun-Times, talking foolishly. Halbrook might just as well argue that it’s his “personal choice” to drive the wrong way down a one-way street.

“If someone doesn’t want to wear a mask, then they’re simply taking the risk themselves,” said state Rep. Darren Bailey, R-Xenia, equally foolishly. The threat is to himself, no doubt — but to everybody else as well.

When the Legislature reconvenes on Wednesday, for a session expected to last through Friday, a very real concern among lawmakers is that they will face a heightened risk of contracting the coronavirus and that angry demonstrators could physically attempt to intimidate them.

They’re unnerved, they tell us, that some of their colleagues may not respect COVID-19 safety measures. And they’re concerned, they say, that they could run into a buzz saw of militant protesters — some possibly armed — like the kind seen lately at statehouse rallies around the country.

In caucus meetings held remotely, they have discussed the “intimidation factor.”

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Guns and politics

Unlike some other states, Illinois doesn’t allow “open carry,” meaning gun owners can’t openly display their weapons. But Illinois does allow “concealed carry,” meaning you never really know which red-faced demonstrators protesting Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s social distancing restrictions might be packing heat.

“Some people would say it is more dangerous,” said Kathleen Sances, president and CEO of the Illinois Gun Violence Prevention PAC. “You don’t know who has the guns.”

Guns have no place in a political debate, especially when tensions are running high, as they are now. State and city of Springfield police will have to be on high alert this week, showing zero tolerance for threatening or intimidating behavior. Legislators who refuse to wear a mask should be barred from the proceedings.

If any of this sounds alarmist, consider the behavior of right-wing extremists in other states.

On Thursday, Michigan officials were forced to close the capitol building and cancel a legislative session after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer received death threats from protesters opposing her shutdown order.

Earlier this month, Michigan lawmakers were forced to walk a gantlet of protesters armed with military-style weapons. Additionally, a phalanx of armed protesters lined up outside a barbershop that remained open in defiance of the governor’s lockdown order.

Similar armed groups in Texas have lined up outside businesses to challenge government lockdown orders. In North Carolina, heavily armed protesters have gathered in bars in defiance of local shutdown orders. In Idaho, protesters are urging people to forcibly resist such orders.

A growing threat

Extremists have been threatening armed resistance for decades. In a visit with the Sun-Times Editorial Board in 2013, U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi made a point of saying she worries about groups arming themselves to “fight the government.”

Daryl Johnson, who has tracked domestic terrorists in the United States for 20 years for the federal government and as a consultant, told us on Friday the threat of anti-government militias has gotten worse since Pelosi voiced her concerns. All 50 states now have armed organizations that encourage using firearms to oppose government, he said.

“This isn’t about people exercising Second Amendment rights,” Johnson said. “This is about intimidation, a show of force, trying to harass and intimidate the opposition, whether it is government officials or counter-protesters. It is silencing the opposition.”

Geoffrey Stone, a constitutional scholar at the University of Chicago Law School, said gun advocates do have a right to display weapons in an “expressive context” where open carry is legal, such as during a march in support of gun rights. But the Constitution does not protect the display of firearms used in a threatening or intimidating manner, he said.

This week in Springfield

Every state, even the most pro-gun friendly, should prohibit the public parading of weapons for the obvious purpose of putting a chill on free speech and governance.

Every protester in Springfield this week should leave their guns at home.

And any lawmaker who can’t be bothered to wear a mask should stay out of town.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.

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