At a Washington rally last year on the fifteenth anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, Rep. Paul Broun (R-GA) declared, “Fellow patriots, we have a lot of domestic enemies of the Constitution, and they’re right down the Mall, in the Congress of the United States—and right down Independence Avenue in the White House that belongs to us. It’s not about my ability to hunt, which I love to do. It’s not about the ability for me to protect my family and my property against criminals, which we have the right to do. But it’s all about protecting ourselves from a tyrannical government of the United States.”
In the wake of the Tucson shooting, aides to President Obama have said that he will address the issue of gun control in the coming weeks—after ignoring it for the entirety of his presidency. Former vice president Dick Cheney has also expressed a desire to ban high capacity clips, like the one used by Jared Loughner, last month’s Tucson shooter. But many Second Amendment supporters abhor any sort of restriction on gun ownership. The rhetoric employed by much of the political right equates gun control legislation with dictatorship; many politicians in state legislatures have continued—even in the aftermath of Tucson—to attempt not only to rescind current restrictions, but have also introduced some of the most enthusiastic right to bear arms bills to date.
In Florida, Rep. Jason Brodeur (R) wants to make it a felony for physicians—who often ask their patients about risky behavior, including drinking, smoking, and wearing a seatbelt—to ask if their patient keeps a gun at home. Brodeur expressed his worry that “If the overreaching federal government actually takes over health care, we’re worried that Washington, D.C., is going to know whether or not they own a gun, and so this is really just a privacy protection.” Doctors who fail to comply with the proposed law could face up to five million dollars in fines—or jail time. In Michigan, State Sen. Mike Green (R-Mayville) introduced legislation that would allow people to carry concealed guns into churches, schools, day care centers, stadiums, bars, and hospitals. He told The Detroit News that he introduced the bill to prove that “there are no places that should be gun-free.” Nebraska State Sen. Mark Christensen also introduced legislation to allow employees at K-12 schools to carry guns. Wyoming and Nebraska both have bills up for consideration in their legislatures that would allow their citizens to carry concealed guns without state permits. And last year, Indiana lawmakers passed a bill allowing workers to keep guns in their cars while parked on company property. State Sen. Johnny Nugent (R-Lawrenceville) has filed legislation barring employers from asking their workers about any firearms that might be in their parking lots because, “there are things that trump those property rights, and one of them is the defense of my life.”
For a long time, liberals hoped that by convincing opponents of gun control that they harbored no hostility toward the vast majority of law-abiding gun owners—or to hunting or rural culture—that they might be able to forge a consensus and create pragmatic firearm laws to protect innocent civilians. But the real passion in the anything goes approach to guns has little to do with the culture of hunting, as evinced by the current bills floating around state legislatures, as well as the sentiments expressed by Rep. Broun. In 2006, Rep. Ron Paul put it: “The Second Amendment is not about hunting deer or keeping a pistol in your nightstand. It is not about protecting oneself against common criminals. It is about preventing tyranny. The Founders knew that unarmed citizens would never be able to overthrow a tyrannical government as they did… The muskets they used against the British army were the assault rifles of that time.” There is a growing acceptability in widening extremist circles to take the Second Amendment at its face value—that United States citizens have a right to guns in order to maintain militias with the firepower to overthrow a “tyrannical” government.
In the past three years, broad-based populist anger over political, demographic, and economic changes in America ignited an explosion of new extremist groups and activism across the nation. The vast majority of these groups are united by the belief that they should have absolute access to any and all types of firearms, and that any step towards gun regulation is a step towards tyranny. One indication of the power of this increasingly widespread belief is in the fate of the assault weapons ban. In September 1994, after a string of grisly shootings—the 1989 Stockton California elementary school attack, the 1991 Killeen massacre, the 1993 Waco siege—Congress passed the assault weapons ban, which limited magazine capacity to ten rounds. But by 2000, the gun control movement had already started flagging. After the passage of the assault weapons ban, the NRA—a powerful, and, for the gun industry, inexpensive lobbying arm that is funded mostly by gun-owner member—introduced a nationwide campaign in support of state laws that gave civilians the right to carry concealed handguns into public areas: shopping malls, Little League games, and almost anywhere else. Before 1987, only ten states had right-to-carry laws. In 1994 and 1995 alone, 11 states enacted such statutes, bringing the total to 28. Today, 48 states allow concealed carry, and Arizona, Alaska, and Vermont do not require any sort of permit in order to do so—which is why Jared Loughner was easily able to buy and carry a concealed gun in public, despite his documented history of mental illness.
Democrats collectively decided that gun control was a cursed issue in the aftermath of the closely contested presidential election of 2000, when Al Gore lost his home state of Tennessee in large part because of NRA opposition. President George W. Bush suggested that he would extend the assault weapons ban and magazine limit, but when the NRA and Republicans on Capitol Hill resisted, he allowed the law to expire in September 2004. The Glock 19—Mr. Loughner’s weapon of choice—would not have been sold for civilian use under the assault weapons ban. Rep. Giffords would probably still have been shot if he had brought a .22 pistol into that Safeway. But without the smooth-firing Glock’s 33 round ammunition magazine, he would not have murdered six people—including a nine year old girl—after shooting over 30 rounds before pausing to reload.
In the current political atmosphere, in which gun control is an untouchable issue, armed men have been attending President Obama’s speeches bearing signs that “the tree of liberty” needs to be “watered” with “the blood of tyrants.” The number of hate groups in America has been going up for years, rising 54% between 2000 and 2008 and driven largely by an angry backlash against non-white immigration, 9/11, and, starting in the last year of that period, the economic meltdown and the climb to power of an African-American president. The militias, and what became known as the Patriot movement, first came to America’s attention in the mid 1990s, when they appeared as an angry reaction to what was seen as a tyrannical government bent on crushing all dissent. Sparked most dramatically by the death of 76 Branch Davidians during a 1993 law enforcement siege in Waco, TX, those who joined the militias also rallied against the Democratic Clinton Administration and initiatives like gun control and environmental regulation. Although the Patriot movement included people formerly associated with racially-based hate groups, it was above all animated by a view of the federal government as the primary enemy, along with a fondness for antigovernment conspiracy theories. By early this decade, the groups had largely disappeared from public view.
But last year, a dramatic resurgence in the Patriot movement and its paramilitary wing, the militias, began. According to a count by the Southern poverty law Center, 363 new Patriot groups appeared in 2009. Individuals associated with the Patriot movement during its 1990s heyday produced an enormous amount of violence, most dramatically the Oklahoma City bombing that left 168 people dead.
As the movement has exploded, so has the reach of its ideas, aided and abetted by commentators and politicians in the ostensible mainstream. While in the 1990s, the movement got good reviews from a few lawmakers and talk-radio hosts, some of its central ideas today are being plugged by people with far larger audiences like FOX News’ Glenn Beck and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-Minn). In April 2009, a man armed with an AK-47, a .22 caliber rifle, and a handgun was charged with killing three cops in Pittsburgh. The accused killer had, as part of a pattern of activities involving far-right conspiracy theories, posted a link on a neo-Nazi website to a video of Beck talking about the possibility that FEMA was operating concentration camps in Wyoming. The killings came after Beck told Fox viewers that he “can’t debunk” the notion that FEMA was operating such camps--but before he finally acknowledged that the conspiracy was not real. In a similar instance this August, a man was arrested with a car full of assault weapons after engaging in a shootout with police. His mother told investigators that he was on his way to--in his words--”start a revolution” by shooting the executive director of the little known Tides Foundation, a non-profit that claims to support “sustainability, better education, solutions to the AIDS epidemic, and human rights.” Not coincidentally, the man had been watching Beck’s show in the months prior to his failed assassination attempt. According to the press watchdog Media Matters, Beck had ranted against Tide’s agenda to “seize power and destroy capitalism” 33 times in the 18 months before the shooting. Media Matters said it was unable to find any other mention of Tides on any news broadcast by any network over that same period.
Most of Beck’s broadcasts have violent imagery: “The clock is ticking. . . . The war is just beginning. . . . Shoot me in the head if you try to change our government. . . . You have to be prepared to take rocks to the head. . . . The other side is attacking. . . . There is a coup going on. . . . Grab a torch! . . . Drive a stake through the heart of the bloodsuckers. . . . They are taking you to a place to be slaughtered. . . . They are putting a gun to America’s head. . . . Hold these people responsible.”
Beck has prophesied darkly to his millions of followers that we are reaching “a point where the people will have exhausted all their options. When that happens, look out.”
There are 240 million guns in America, with more being manufactured and imported every day. The combination of easy access to weapons with extremist and violent rhetoric is a potent force. Leaders and citizens should reconsider the executive director of the NRA, Wayne LaPierre’s, assertion in 2009 that “the guys with the guns make the rules.”