Trump's 'Liberate' Protesters Want the Right to Feel Safe. Americans Want the Right to Be Safe | Opinion

Across the country, we've been bombarded with pictures and videos of extremists storming state capitols, cradling guns and badgering the rest of us about their idea of "freedom." They claim to speak for all Americans, who overwhelmingly disagree with them. While they are demanding the "right" to do what they want, most Americans are demanding their right to stay alive.

These protests do not liberate anyone. They endanger the public and represent a tiny minority of Americans: 76 percent support keeping social distancing in place, and 85 percent are afraid that they or someone they know will get COVID-19. Despite a lack of popular support, protests are funded and coordinated by a handful of longtime conservative activists, including the DeVos family and other major Trump donors.

President Donald Trump's recent Twitter outburst to "liberate" states is part of his erratic guidance for when governors should reopen. But while he might change his position on a dime—just ask Georgia's governor—one thing remains consistent: his invocation of the Second Amendment and his deference to the gun lobby and its allies.

The gun lobby's support for these protests aligns with the views of those well-connected individuals who are using this crisis to stoke fear, unrest and skepticism toward any formal government efforts to protect the public. This latest scheme is one more example of their circumvention of popular support for laws and policies that make all Americans safer, so that they can hold on to power and profitability.

According to the gun groups, the Second Amendment protects a protester's ability to buy a semiautomatic weapon and carry it openly in a public, crowded place during a pandemic. They say he doesn't need a reason, because the right to "self-defense" allows arming against any hypothetical boogeyman. Meanwhile, his defiance of social distancing endangers all of us. This is not hypothetical. It is measurable and can be fatal.

Actual safety should matter more to a democracy than someone's unfounded fears. Yet gun rights extremists say just the opposite, arguing that Americans have a right to feel safe, so long as feeling safe means having a gun, even though irresponsible gun owners brandishing their guns in public places make everyone less safe. This argument is fueled by gun lobby leaders, who want to keep people scared and buying guns at record rates.

Of course, like the "armed self-defense" rights gun activists promote, protection from COVID-19 is an unequal resource. Staying safe in today's world means practicing social distancing, staying home and being able to access health care. All of these precautions are more available to the wealthy conservatives supporting these rallies than black, Latinx and indigenous Americans, who are—perhaps most critically —more likely to be "essential workers." Recent incidents of police misconduct have confirmed black Americans' concerns about wearing a face mask in public. These structural barriers have had predictable results: Rates of COVID-19 infection and death are higher for black and Latinx Americans.

A man carrying a gun takes part in a "reopen" Pennsylvania demonstration on April 20 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty

The protests against social distancing retrench the unequal racial politics of safety, especially in public. These protests endanger everyone, but particularly those who were already vulnerable. As with Second Amendment extremists, those who oppose sheltering policies prioritize their unfounded views of personal safety over the lives of their fellow citizens.

Yet most Americans agree that the safety of our communities shouldn't be put at risk by the gun lobby's agenda. They understand the stakes of this crisis. They support measures to protect their families, as well as essential workers and other vulnerable populations, because it's common sense. This is why Americans support shelter-in-place policies, and it's why they support gun safety laws.

So it's time to show these protesters that they don't speak for most of us. It's time to expose the funders of these rallies who are putting the lives of so many at risk. We can demand more from our elected officials, our judges and our neighbors. We can demand the right to stay alive. And if our leaders don't believe that we deserve this right, then we can demand better leaders.

Hannah Friedman is a staff attorney for the Giffords Law Center.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.