ATLANTA (AP) — Republican presidential contender Ben Carson has a simple solution for preventing a Paris-style attack at one of his campaign rallies: “If a bunch of terrorists came in here and there were people in here with guns, it would be very unlikely that they would be able to carry about the kind of massacre they did in Paris.”
But there’s a snag in that approach — the demands of the Secret Service agents now protecting him, at his request (and at taxpayer expense). They don’t allow any guns except those carried by authorized personnel.
At Carson’s rallies as well as Donald Trump’s, there’s a dissonance between the faith they put in the hands of armed citizens to keep public events safe and the Secret Service protection they rely on for their own security.
To be sure, a campaign rally with a polarizing candidate on stage — or any candidate — is not the same as a soccer stadium or nightclub like the ones attacked in Paris. The Secret Service began protecting certain candidates in presidential primaries after the killing of Robert Kennedy in 1968, which followed the assassination of his brother, President John F. Kennedy, in 1963, out of fear that more political figures — not just presidents — would be targeted.
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Yet for the public, political rallies to which the agency is assigned are decidedly the “gun-free zones” that Trump has explicitly called for ending and that Carson supports doing away with, too, judging from his rhetoric.
In November, Trump told a crowd of several thousand at a rally in Knoxville, Tennessee, that “Paris is one of the places in the world that’s toughest on guns” so Parisians were left vulnerable.
“There was nothing anybody can do,” he said. “I know one thing, in this room, it’s a whole different story, right?” The crowd cheered.
He was right that it was a different story than Paris — but that was because of the Secret Service people in the room, not citizens packing guns.
Asked about the rules after that rally, Secret Service spokeswoman Nicole Mainor said, “Any assumption that non-authorized law enforcement personnel at this venue or any other Secret Service-secured protected event were armed would be inaccurate.” She said if someone who did not have authority to bring a weapon showed up with one, that person would be arrested by local authorities.
Carson mocked the concept of gun-free zones in his rally Tuesday night in Georgia, before a crowd of about 2,000. “You have people who want to kill you and you’re going to say, ‘Uh, why don’t you come over here, none of us have guns,'” he said to laughter and applause. “I mean that is just so asinine it’s unbelievable.”
He spoke at center stage with armed Secret Service agents standing to his left and his right.
But he acknowledged them.
“I don’t know if this is a gun-free zone here,” he said. “Now fortunately we have some Secret Service. … They have guns.”
Trump and Carson have joined Democrat Hillary Clinton as the only 2016 candidates with Secret Service details at this point in the campaign. Clinton has had some level of Secret Service protection since 1992, when her husband, Bill, was elected president. Carson and Trump began receiving protection in November.
Once a candidate requests Secret Service protection, the agency does not make the decision. Federal law authorizes the homeland security secretary to decide which “major Presidential and Vice Presidential candidates” should be protected, based on their standing in the race and perceived threats. The secretary consults with a congressional advisory panel that includes leaders of both parties in the House and Senate and one additional member of Congress.
Before Robert Kennedy’s murder on the night of the California Democratic primary in 1968, Secret Service protection was not standard for political candidates. Soon afterward, protection was extended to major candidates for president and vice president as well as to their spouses.
Jon Adler, a law enforcement officer, gun-rights advocate and president of the Federal Law Enforcement Officers Association Foundation, said he’d favor letting people bring guns to rallies if the Secret Service were not there — but not when the agency is assigned to the candidate. That, he said, would mean “a Wild, Wild West set of circumstances.”
Colvin reported from Newark, New Jersey. Associated Press writer Erik Schelzig contributed from Knoxville, Tennessee.
Follow Barrow and Colvin on Twitter at https://twitter.com/BillBarrowAP and https://twitter.com/colvinj