Over the last year, as riotous extremists descended on North Dakota to sow violence and discord as a means to block the Dakota Access Pipeline, it became not at all unusual to see photos of said extremists wearing masks covering their face.
North Dakota lawmakers want to make that act – wearing a mask during a protest – illegal. The legislation is HB1304 (see below), introduced by Republican House Majority Leader Al Carlson:
That’s a very broad prohibition, but the bill proposes all sorts of exceptions:
This legislation has prompted a lot of eye-rolling on social media, particularly among state Democrats, but I’m not sure the motivations here should be belittled.
It may be hard to understand for people who watched the #NoDAPL rioting play out from afar, but south central North Dakota was terrorized by political extremists over the last several months. Masked agitators vandalizing property, making threats, and attacking law enforcement became an almost daily part of life for people who lived in that area. And anti-mask laws, which are on the books in a number of states, have long been a legislative tool to combat the unlawful political antics.
The motivation is understandable, but as a practical matter will this sort of policy accomplish anything?
Probably not. While the motivations are understandable, the policy is misguided.
People wear masks for a lot of perfectly legitimate reasons, as the list of exemptions in the proposed legislation attests. Should this bill become law, a mask worn for a holiday or for a parade or because of the weather would be legal, but a mask worn during a demonstration would not be.
This makes me think of the wrong-headed arguments people often make against guns. Some want guns banned – or at least so regulated that obtaining them, bearing them, and using them is almost impossible – because sometimes guns are used in crimes. But those of us who support gun rights point out that guns do not commit crimes. They are a tool, with a number of perfectly legitimate uses.
The same can be said of masks.
Masks don’t commit crimes. People commit crimes. Outlawing the wearing of masks would accomplish very little, other than perhaps allowing law enforcement to sometimes arrest people at political demonstrations for wearing masks.
Which, in the absence of some actual criminal activity, doesn’t sound much like justice to me.