Google the phrase "An armed society is a polite society" and you will find hundreds of references to gun lobby spokespersons who claim that the push to arm every man and woman in America will not only make us safer but result in a utopia of good manners (sort of like the threat of mutually assured destruction in the nuclear age was at one time thought to temper angry rhetoric among nations). It is worth looking at this claim again in light of a disturbing new report issued yesterday by Media Matters for America. The report demonstrates a clear link between armed violence and the contemptuous political rhetoric that seems to be the raison d'être for Fox News.
The United States is a country with well over 200 million firearms in civilian hands, and since the demise of the federal Assault Weapon Ban in September 2004, the firepower in general circulation has become increasingly lethal. So there's no doubt that the "armed society" part of the gun lobby's catchphrase has been realized, in large part due to porous gun laws. Unfortunately, the "polite" side of the equation has not come to pass. For example, featured speakers at the 2010 NRA convention ranted about "gun haters," warned that "political elites" are a "cancer" that is "corrupting the rule of law," and described the current Democratic administration as "Marxist revolutionaries" and "a secular, Socialist machine--a system which combines the corruption of Springfield with the machine politics of Chicago with the radicalism of [Saul] Alinsky" -hardly polite talk. These same commentators simultaneously derided all efforts to regulate firearms and actively pushed for the increased arming of average citizens, at home and in public.
If the consequences of a false and silly slogan were simply that the gun lobby was wrong, there wouldn't be much to write about. Unfortunately, far more is at stake. And nobody is a better poster child for the dire consequences of an impolite society where anybody can get a gun then Glenn Beck.
Consider the effect that Beck had on Byron Williams, the gunman who engaged in a shootout with law enforcement on a California freeway this summer. Williams' plan, before he was interrupted, "was to start a revolution by traveling to San Francisco and killing people of importance at the Tides Foundation and the ACLU." His mother, Janice Williams, told investigators that her son was upset by "the way Congress was railroading through all these Left-wing agenda items."
Williams, 45, was unemployed and on parole after being released for a 2002 robbery in Chowchilla, California, when he planned his "revolution" (his criminal career included additional convictions for assault, property destruction, hit and run, and a DUI). First he stole a 9mm handgun, a shotgun and a .308 caliber rifle from his mother. Then, on July 18, after drinking copious amounts of alcohol (his mother would later find "18 or 20 beer bottles" by his sink), he loaded his guns into his pickup truck with a large quantity of ammunition and headed west to San Francisco.
Williams was on I-580 in Oakland when California Highway Patrol (CHP) officers stopped him for driving erratically. Williams opened fire, injuring two CHP officers and sustaining five gunshot wounds himself in a 12-minute gunfight. His life was likely saved by body armor that he had donned that morning.
One month after the shooting, Media Matters sent freelance reporter John Hamilton to California to personally interview Byron Williams and his mother, Janice Williams. Those interviews have brought clarity to the motivations behind Williams' planned attack. For full details, watch this video from Media Matter. In a nutshell, over multiple shows in June of this year, Beck sketched out a cockamamie conspiracy theory about President Obama, George Soros and the Tides Foundation working together to sabotage BP's Deepwater Horizon oil rig so that Soros could profit on the rising stock price of the Brazilian energy company Petrobas. Williams bought it hook, line and sinker and was incensed about it.
Beck's attacks on businessman/philanthropist George Soros and the Tides Foundation are nothing new. Since his arrival at Fox in 2009, Beck has repeatedly linked the two parties together (describing it as "George Soros' Tides Foundation"), even though contributions from Soros' Open Society Institute amount to less than 5% of Tides' total funding. Nonetheless, Beck has vilified Tides as part of a progressive plot to "create mass organizations to seize power" and claims that they are "involved in some of the nastiest of the nasty." All told, Beck attacked Tides 29 times on his Fox News show in the year-and-a-half leading up to Williams' shooting spree.
Beck, of course, was the keynote speaker at the National Rifle Association's annual convention this year in Charlotte, North Carolina. His hostile and confrontational rhetoric was on display as he told those in attendance, "'Courageous restraint?' I'm sorry, you're coming at me with a gun, I'm going to shoot you!" and encouraged them to form citizens' militias to deal with the problem of illegal immigration.
NRA President Ron Schmeits, like Williams, couldn't get enough, telling Beck, "Glenn, we're big fans of you and your show." Perhaps the NRA sees a bit of their own influence in Beck. After all, the NRA was demonizing Soros and the Tides Foundation with propaganda long before Beck ever appeared on FOX.
Williams, too, has been influenced by the gun lobby. During his interview with Hamilton, he insisted that his planned rampage was legitimated by the Constitution. "[America's Founding Fathers] gave us so many rights and so much sovereignty, that they felt that we even have the right to overthrow our government if it became oppressive," he stated. "That's the real nature of the Second amendment of the Constitution. It's a right of forming militia and protecting ourselves against foreign bodies and domestic bodies. It was a right to have equal firepower even against our own government."
Such language could have been lifted from the NRA's amicus brief in the 2008 D.C. v. Heller Supreme Court case. Or perhaps Williams heard Newt Gingrich speaking at the NRA's 2010 annual convention. Gingrich addressed those in attendance on the same day as Beck and told them, "I want to preface my explanation of the Second Amendment by saying it is not in defense of hunting. It is not in defense of target shooting. It is not in defense of collecting. The Second Amendment is in defense of freedom from the State."
The NRA billed their 2010 convention as a "Celebration of American Values." For those in the crosshairs of extreme right-wing rhetoric, however, there is little to celebrate. "I wish Glenn Beck would grow up and learn that he has real responsibilities," says Tides founder Drummond Pike. "He has a very magnified voice in the media landscape ... We have become so polarized, and portions of the population so fearful, that we are risking our American tradition of openness and tolerance in very scary ways."
Beck seems totally unconcerned about how toxic his brand of political rhetoric is when combined with unrestricted access to firearms, however-- unless it involves saving his own skin. To great applause, he told the NRA faithful on May 19:
God forbid there's another Timothy McVeigh. And god forbid that guy has in his wallet an NRA card. Now have you donated to the NRA? I have. Have you? If they find that, could they make the case that this is a terrorist organization and that you are funding a terrorist organization? I know they damn well try with me. And suspend my right to a fair trial? Hell no!
Byron Williams was obviously not 100% mentally stable, but good mental health is not currently a prerequisite to amassing an arsenal of firearms in our society. Those who perpetuate conspiracy theories and spew political vitriol should remember that in the future.