"A rifle on our back is part of our everyday life, just like a cellphone is part of our everyday life," Angela L. Pena told a reporter for the New York Times. Pena made the comment last weekend at a gun-rights rally in San Antonio, where enthusiasts openly carried rifles, including semi-automatic rifles, in order to assert their right to openly carry rifles, including semi-automatic rifles.
There are countries where carrying such weapons is "just like" carrying a cellphone, but the U.S. is not one of them. (Syria comes to mind.) In the U.S., someone walking down an urban street -- San Antonio is the nation's seventh largest city -- with a cellphone goes unnoticed. Someone walking down the street with an AR-15 occasions public panic and a SWAT team.
The reason for this is obvious even to the gun-rights extremists who pretend they don't comprehend the distinction: Cellphones don't kill people; guns do.
Cellphones don't threaten people, either. By contrast, the purpose of the San Antonio rally, sensibly held at the Alamo, where hundreds died of gunfire, was to intimidate. ("I have to admit I was a bit apprehensive," police chief William McManus said. Mission accomplished.)
Like most cities, San Antonio is not keen on people walking about with guns at the ready. Texas law enables citizens to obtain a permit to carry a concealed handgun. A concealed weapon may make its bearer feel more secure, but it doesn't intimidate others; only open carry accomplishes that goal.
The effort to make this behavior seem "normal" and "routine," as one organizer called it before the rally, was not only undermined by the generally accepted definitions of those words in a nation not engulfed in civil war. It was also rendered absurd by the organizers themselves, who asked marchers to "promote a nonaggressive manner of carry" and to insert plastic straws or strips into their rifle chambers to show the chambers held no bullets.
Pretending extreme behavior is normal engenders such contradictions. (Does anyone immobilize a cellphone for fear of appearing homicidally unhinged?) The need for cosmetic alterations is especially acute given the jagged political sentiments driving the movement. The Times reported that a flier announcing the rally featured the cry: "Come and Take It, San Antonio." The phrase, rich with insecurity and aggression, captures some of the impetus behind the extreme gun-rights movement.
But as the rally participants made clear, transforming such aggressive rhetoric into commensurately aggressive action is a little too freaky even for those who, for political reasons, feel compelled to insist that it's "normal." In effect, the extremists are not as oblivious to social norms as they'd like the rest of us to believe. Even they know there's something a little nuts about walking down a city street brandishing a loaded AR-15.
(Francis Wilkinson is a member of the Bloomberg View editorial board. Follow him on Twitter.)