Did rifle-toting Obama protester help or hurt gun rights?

New laws are allowing more Americans to carry guns in public. But are gun-carrying protesters going too far?

The appearance of weapons near the president at a speech and a healthcare town hall has been cast as either a danger to the president and public debate or a sign of that gun ownership is gradually losing its stigma.

A man in a shirt and tie carried a shoulder-slung rifle near President Obama's entourage in Phoenix Tuesday. Since carrying a gun is legal in Arizona, police did not take action against him or any other gun-carrying protesters.

Last week, however, a man was arrested near the presidential town hall in Portsmouth, N.H., for not having the proper permits for a gun. Another man wore a gun in a leg holster.

To many liberals, such displays are a worrisome sign that the president's opponents are trying to intimidate public discourse. "Loaded weapons at political forums endanger all involved, distract law enforcement, and end up stifling debate," says Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence in a statement issued Tuesday.

But many gun-rights experts see another trend at work: the "re-normalization" of gun ownership in the United States. So-called "must-issue" laws, which mandate that anyone who meets the requirements for a gun permit must be issued one, are spreading to more states. Congress has broadened the rights of gun owners recently, for example allowing guns in federal parks. And the Supreme Court's decision in District of Columbia v. Heller last year emboldened gun owners, experts say. It confirmed that the constitutional right "to keep and bear arms" is not a state right, as some gun-control advocates had argued, but an individual right.

The recent furor over the presence of guns near the president is part of an effort to undermine these gains, says Brandon Denning, a law professor at Cumberland School of Law in Birmingham, Ala. It "is an attempt to somehow reverse the normalization of guns," he says. In actuality, the spread of laws that allow permit-holders to carry their weapons openly throughout much of the central, Southwestern, and Southern United States has gradually made the sight of people carrying guns less jarring, says Dave Kopel, a gun-rights expert at the Independence Institute in Golden, Colo.

Yet the decision by the crisply dressed man in Phoenix to carry a rifle to an anti-Obama rally seemed to be intended as a provocative statement of Second Amendment rights, says Mr. Kopel.

"This is really a form of expressive speech, and I think the fact that the Secret Service ... hasn't gotten particularly upset shows good judgement on their part," he says.

Still, the man didn't necessarily do the Second Amendment cause any favors, Kopel says.

"While I think it's really paranoid for some of the media to falsely characterize this as people trying to threaten the president, I think it shows bad judgement to carry [guns] near a presidential speech," he says. Protesters are "trying to make a statement about Second Amendment rights, but they're doing it in a way that probably sets back that cause."

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