New Report Highlights Need for Stronger Laws Against Guns at Polling Places in Swing States

September 23, 2020

Election Season Follows Months of Record Gun Sales, Driven by Racial Animus; Voters in Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin Would Benefit From Stronger Laws

WASHINGTON -- With early in-person voting only a few weeks away and with a surge in white supremacists and militia groups open carrying their weapons this summer, two gun violence prevention advocacy organizations have released a joint report highlighting the need for stronger laws to protect and keep swing state voters safe in the voting booth.

The report, released by the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and Guns Down America, found that Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wisconsin all lack laws that expressly prevent the possession of firearms at polling places, but do have tools that can help prevent intimidation if state and local officials take coordinated action. In fact, only six states -- Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana and Texas -- have clear laws that generally prohibit guns in polling places.

The report found numerous examples of gun-based intimidation in polling places in swing states. Armed Right-wing supporters questioned voters at polling places and protested outside of a Democratic campaign office with firearms in Virginia during the 2016 election. In 2018, a Pennsylvania man was arrested for threatening to “shoot up” a polling place. In North Carolina, a Black campaign volunteer was accosted by an armed man at an early voting location for the 2018 election.

“Voting is a fundamental right, and all American citizens should be able to exercise the franchise safely,” said Guns Down America Executive Director Igor Volsky. “In 2020, as gun sales increase nationwide, armed insurrectionists are showing up in public spaces carrying assault weapons, and President Trump continues to warn about a rigged election. It’s critical that the public, and local and state election officials, are familiar with existing state protections against armed intimidation and, where appropriate, take additional measure to keep us all safe.”

Added Coalition to Stop Gun Violence Executive Director Joshua Horwitz, "This report illustrates that state and local officials can -- and should -- take swift action to ensure their constituents can vote without fear of armed obstruction or intimidation. Voting is vital to our democracy, and any attempt to prevent voters from exercising their right erodes the integrity of our elections and damages our nation. Simply put, guns threaten our public discourse, and there is no place more important to this discourse -- and our future -- than our polling locations."

Horwitz is the author of Guns, Democracy, and the Insurrectionist Idea, which explores how extremist insurrectionist ideology has been promoted and mainstreamed by the National Rifle Association and its allies in the far-right movement and the consequences for U.S. democracy.

Driven in part by racial animus, gun sales have surged in 2020. In August 2020, the FBI conducted more than 3.1 million firearm background checks, an increase of 35 percent over the same month in 2019. In July 2020, the FBI conducted more than 3.6 million firearm background checks, making it the third-highest month on record for checks since the bureau began keeping statistics in 1998.

Adding fuel to the fire, President Trump has already supported the idea of armed insurrection during the 2016 election and in response to prolonged state COVID-19 lockdowns. He has also begun coalescing a massive “poll watcher” effort for the 2020 election. Armed counter-protestors, some of whom identify with militia movements, organized in opposition to anti-racism rallies in at least 33 states across the country over the past several months. One of these confrontations reached a tipping point with the shooting of three Black Lives Matter protestors in Kenosha, Wisconsin by a self-proclaimed “militia” member less than three months before the general election.

Previously, in the week before the 2016 election, Guns Down America launched a campaign to give voters a way to report instances of armed intimidation at polling places. In less than 12 hours, 85 voters in 28 states reported seeing firearms at the polls. These incidents were reported by Voter Protection Hotline personnel to local law enforcement and election authorities.