This week's Time magazine cover story on "The Secret World of Extreme Militias" sounds an alarm that cannot be ignored. The threat of terrorism is real, but it does not originate with Al Qaeda alone. The danger of homegrown right wing political violence is just as real.
The Time article describes, in chilling terms, the proliferation of heavily armed, right wing militias engaged in paramilitary training to resist the perceived "tyranny" of government authority. Time notes that although the groups and individuals of the violent right reflect a "complex web" of ideologies, "among the most common convictions is that the Second Amendment -- the right to keep and bear arms -- is the Constitution's cornerstone, because only a well-armed populace can enforce its rights." For the militias and their ideological soulmates, "any form of gun regulation, therefore, is a sure sign of intent to crush other freedoms."
The connection between the gun control issue and the threat of violence from the right is an important, but largely untold, story. The militias' view that the Second Amendment protects our other rights, by ensuring the potential for armed insurrection against the government, is indistinguishable from the long-held constitutional ideology of the National Rifle Association.
For decades, NRA leaders have insisted that the Second Amendment is not only about duck hunting or self-defense against criminal attack. Rather, as one NRA official so colorfully put it, "the Second Amendment . . . is literally a loaded gun in the hands of the people held to the heads of government." NRA Executive Director Wayne LaPierre received loud cheers when he told last year's Conservative Political Action Conference that our rights as Americans mean little unless we are ready to defend them against the government by force of arms: "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."
The Time reporter asked one Ohio militia officer what government action the militia is defending against. He replied, "Most likely it will start when the government tries to take our guns." Of course, the NRA stands alone in its ability to inspire hysterical fears of gun confiscation. During the last Presidential campaign, the NRA maintained a www.gunbanobama.com website and its delusional rhetoric about the Administration's supposed gun-banning intentions has been unrelenting. Looking forward to the upcoming elections, LaPierre seeks to rally the NRA troops by warning of "dark clouds on the horizon," with Democrats "lying in the weeds in wait to pick their time to destroy this freedom."
The determination of NRA leaders to generate paranoia and hatred toward the government has gotten them into trouble before. In a now-infamous fundraising letter sent on April 13, 1995, LaPierre warned his members about the "jack-booted government thugs" of the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who have the "power to take away our Constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us . . . ." Six days later, as NRA members found this noxious letter in their mail, Timothy McVeigh, convinced that the time to resist federal tyranny had arrived, bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City that housed the local offices of the ATF.
The Time article quotes a "self-described colonel" in a Kentucky militia, who channels LaPierre's incendiary rhetoric by predicting war with "the jackbooted thugs of Washington." LaPierre has made a career of spreading the nonsense that the "jackbooted thugs" are always "lying in the weeds" waiting for the chance to take away everyone's guns. It also is revealing that Richard Mack, one of the sheriffs recruited years ago by the NRA to challenge the Brady Bill in court, is now a hero of the violent right. In an interview with the Time reporter, Mack referred to federal agents as "America's gestapo".
What is truly disturbing is that the political influence of the NRA has given its insurrectionist view of the Second Amendment a home in some very high places, particularly within the Republican Party. It's not just Tea Party Republicans like Nevada Senatorial candidate Sharron Angle, with her call for "Second Amendment remedies," to be used "when our government becomes tyrannical." As the Republican Party has become more and more ideologically "pure" in its support of NRA policy positions, insurrectionist talk has made some surprising appearances.
For me, the most striking example surfaced in the legal briefs filed before the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark Heller Second Amendment case. Bush Administration Solicitor General Paul Clement filed a brief which, paradoxically, both infuriated the "gun rights" crowd and endorsed the insurrectionist theory of the Second Amendment. The pro-gun folks were enraged that the Clement brief actually argued for reversal of the D.C. Circuit's ruling striking down the District of Columbia handgun ban. Clement's brief suggested that the case be sent back to the lower court for further fact-finding. Largely unnoticed was Clement's comment that the Second Amendment guarantees "an armed citizenry as a deterrent to abusive behavior by the federal government itself."
This is a remarkable statement by a lawyer for the United States government. Does it not maintain that the potential for citizens to fire upon federal agents is an important constitutional value? Does it not imply that the greatest Second Amendment protection should be given to citizens who are arming themselves against the threat of government abuse, like the rightwing militias now training with assault rifles? Does this theory mean that Timothy McVeigh was engaged in constitutionally protected conduct as he built his bomb, because the threat of violence is "a deterrent to abusive government behavior"? It is noteworthy that Mr. Clement, as a private attorney, represented the NRA in the McDonald case, in which the Supreme Court struck down the Chicago handgun ban.
It will, of course, be loudly protested that the Bush Justice Department did not advocate violence against the government, nor does the NRA and Sharron Angle. This misses the point. The issue is not whether they have advocated violence against the government, but rather whether they have constructed a constitutional justification for violence. When right wing militias, or lone extremists, take that justification seriously, and act on it, no one should be surprised.
For more information, see Dennis Henigan's Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books 2009)