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"Gun Rights" and Political Violence

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The rage from the right directed at the Obama Administration, and particularly the health care reform legislation, has long been ugly. It's now becoming poisonous, and dangerous. Threats of violence have been made against Congressional supporters of health care reform, most recently Washington State Senator Patty Murray. Bricks have been thrown through the windows of local Democratic Party headquarters from New York to Kansas to Arizona. We are seeing a resurgence of rightwing militia groups training for war against the government.

It is too easy for politicians and political commentators to treat our increasingly incendiary political atmosphere as a product merely of disparate extremist individuals and groups on the fringes of our political system. Treating the problem as the product of a relatively few misguided individuals with bizarre violent fantasies misses a far more troubling reality. What we are seeing is the acting out of an ideology of violence as a tool of political power that has long had a home on the American right - particularly in the "gun rights" movement dominated by the National Rifle Association.

The central theme of that ideology is that the meaning of the "right of the people to keep and bear arms" in the Second Amendment is not limited to private self-defense or hunting, but far more importantly includes the potential for an armed citizenry to resist the government. According to this view, the Second Amendment deters government overreaching by creating an ever-present threat of violent resistance. Some years ago, an NRA official put it this way, "the Second Amendment . . . is literally a loaded gun in the hands of the people held to the heads of government."

Echoes of the NRA's insurrectionist rhetoric can be heard from the leaders of the gun activists who plan to converge on Washington, D.C. on April 19, a date with great emotional resonance for the "gun rights" movement and, for different reasons, for the rest of us. It is both the anniversary of Lexington/Concord and of the tragic federal assault on the David Koresh compound in Waco, Texas in 1993. It also is the anniversary of what was, to that date, the worst terrorist attack in U.S. history - Timothy McVeigh's 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. McVeigh, as we know now, saw himself as the embodiment of the Second Amendment right to use violence against government overreaching - for him, the Waco tragedy was evidence of government "tyranny" sufficient to justify insurrection. Consider now the words of Skip Coryell, the founder of the Second Amendment March set for April 19 in the Nation's Capital, as he justifies threats of armed force against elected officials:

"We the people have been exercising our First Amendment right to the hilt. We're screaming! We're protesting! We're faxing! We're phoning and marching and yelling....But still...they ignore us....There are a lot of people out there like me who will no longer tolerate the arrogance of politicians who ignore us....And here's the million-dollar question: What happens if the First Amendment fails?...When the government ignores the First Amendment, it is time to rattle the Second Amendment sabers...As long as our elected officials believe we will rise up and overthrow them under certain conditions, then they will not allow those conditions to occur. Their jobs and their very lives depend on it."

In other words, if we use the First Amendment to try to persuade our elected officials to our point of view, and we fail, then it's time to resort to the Second Amendment - that is, to threaten violence. And, ultimately, to use violence.

This is right out of the NRA's playbook. Last year, NRA Executive Director Wayne LaPierre explained it in chilling terms to the wild cheers of the Conservative Political Action Conference. According to LaPierre, when it comes down to it, the only freedom that really counts is the right to be armed - without it, "liberty is but an illusion." In the NRA's world, we are free only to the extent that our guns allow us to impose our will on others. Here are LaPierre's words:

"Our divine rights, they might have been endowed by a Creator, but they are preserved by mortals, if we mortals have the means and the will to make it stick....Freedom is nothing but dust in the wind till it's guarded by the blue steel and dry powder of a free and armed people....Our founding fathers understood that the guys with the guns make the rules."

It is worth pausing to reflect on that phrase: "The guys with the guns make the rules." In the NRA's distortion of democracy, the rules we live by are not ultimately the result of our collective decision-making, made through our elected representatives, after we have had a fair opportunity to exercise our First Amendment right to be heard. Ultimately, the rules are made by those who are more powerful than the rest of us because they are armed.

With manufactured outrage, the NRA will deny that it condones violence or that it is "responsible" for the violent acts of others. What it cannot deny is that it has long been the most powerful purveyor of an ideology that legitimizes violence, and the threat of violence, as a tool of political power. And, after Oklahoma City, none of us can hide from the foreseeable, and perhaps inevitable, consequences of that ideology.

For more information, see Dennis Henigan's new book, Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy.