Fatal Flaw In Ph.D. Thesis On Second Amendment Suppressing First Amendment

(AP Photo/Steven Senne)

The Atlantic has been on an anti-Second Amendment tear lately. After a couple of pieces by David Frum, which I’ve addressed before, they have an article (Archived) that employs the newfangled theory that the Second Amendment somehow threatens the First Amendment. We saw this in the ACLU amicus brief in the NYSRPA v. Bruen case, which Cam addressed recently.

This article goes one step further. It cites “research” by two parties to make broad claims about how open carry protests chill free speech. The crux of the article is as follows:

Some protests involving open carry firearms have resulted in violence. The presence of firearms at a protest causes some people to be scared. Due to this fear, they are unable to express their opinions freely. Therefore – you can guess where this is headed – open carry at protests must be “regulated.”

Lest we forget, this argument has already been employed in the Campus Carry debate, that concealed carrying of guns inside a classroom would somehow stifle discussions. There is no evidence that those fears materialized. Yet, that argument is being laundered and reused against open carry at public protests, with calls to “further study” the chilling effect of concealed carry.

The article states:

What most people do not realize is that the Second Amendment has become, in recent years, a threat to the First Amendment. People cannot freely exercise their speech rights when they fear for their lives. […] Diana Palmer, one of the authors of this article, conducted a study […] found that participants were far less likely to attend a protest, carry a sign, vocalize their views, or bring children to protests if they knew firearms would be present.

There are two underlying studies this article is based on. The first one is from Everytown/ACLED, and the second one is a Ph.D. dissertation by Diana Palmer, one of the authors of the article. Everytown’s research is shoddy; it has been taken apart thoroughly before. Their new “research” needs to be tackled, but I will focus on the Ph.D. dissertation, which you can download and look at yourself here.

The abstract of the dissertation states the following:

In this mixed-methods study, 1,205 participants were surveyed about their likelihood of engaging in First Amendment behaviors at a protest with and without firearms and asked to explain what factors they considered when selecting their answers. […] In the quantitative element of the study, differences in expressive behavior were analyzed in the condition with no firearms and the condition with firearms. The analysis showed that participants were less likely to engage in expressive behaviors when firearms were present.

The abstract only talks about public protest scenarios in which guns are either present or not present. I looked through the dissertation, and found that it lacks any questions on weapons that aren’t firearms. Participants were never asked what they would do if knives, swords, clubs, pepper spray, brass knuckles, bike locks, etc. would be present. Any chilling effect of non-firearms weapons on assembly is not considered in the dissertation.

Weapons aren’t the only things that people can react to negatively. Participants weren’t asked what they would do if there were head-to-toe incognito, masked protestors at an event. Anyone following the news knows that antifa mobs have been showing up at “protests” in all-black, covering their faces while violating journalists’ First Amendment right to record them. Likewise, would people show up to a protest if there were people wearing Klan hoods?

Another topic that wasn’t addressed is crowd density. Personally, I avoid crowds and wouldn’t be surprised if survey participants would factor in high crowd density as a deterrent… if they had been asked about it.

Lastly, the timing of a protest was not included in the surveys; there are people who avoid “protests” at 1 AM. Too bad the dissertation didn’t ask about that.

These are questions that should have been part of the research, and the Ph.D. advisor or members of the committee should have caught these misses. This is a fatal flaw, in my opinion, especially given what the dissertation lays out in conclusion:

The first recommendation is that the carrying of firearms at protests should be regulated separately from other forms of open carry. 

Given all the important questions that were missed, I take objection to the singling out of open carry at protests. If it’s a matter of regulating open carry at protests with, say, having your gun unloaded, mag out, chamber flag in, that’s one thing. But I doubt that’s the sort of benign regulation the writers of The Atlantic piece are asking for.

Going back to the article in The Atlantic, the writers also want to study concealed carry:

Research thus far has focused on open display of firearms, but further study is needed to evaluate the public safety concerns that may still be present when protesters or counterprotesters bring concealed firearms to demonstrations.

Unfortunately, this looks like agenda-driven, or at a minimum, bias-distorted research to me. Watching the press amplify it is unfunny to say the least.

Nov 26, 2021 10:30 AM ET