Second Amendment activists have, over the years, gone to great lengths to obscure the difference between gun rights and genuine civil liberties, especially the freedom of speech. After Virginia Governor Ralph Northam banned weapons from the square, gun-rights groups rushed to court to seek invalidation of the order. According to news reports, their lawyers “argued that prohibiting rallygoers from carrying guns would violate their Second Amendment right to bear arms and their First Amendment right to free speech” because “carrying guns is a form of symbolic speech.”
This is a potentially deadly confusion. The freedom to buy, own, and carry firearms, whatever its scope, is in no respect like the freedom of speech. Speech consists of words and launches ideas. “Symbolic speech” refers to signs, flags, photographs, and gestures that express those words and ideas. A gun is not merely a symbol; it is not like words or ideas. It is an instrument of violence and death, and its display amid a crowd is a threat.
– Garrett Epps in Guns Are No Mere Symbol