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Handguns and Health Care Reform

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The nation is transfixed this month on a series of tense, contentious town halls that are taking place in states across the country. Determined to derail President Obama's health care reform plans, right wing activists have stormed these meetings en masse to shout down speakers (including Democratic members of Congress) and derail all attempts at meaningful dialogue. Reports indicate that "Tea Partiers" are also carrying concealed handguns into these events -- yet few in the media have commented on the distorted view of the Second Amendment that is driving this call to arms.

The Tea Party "mobs" are not as spontaneous as they might appear. On July 24, an anti-health care reform group called Conservatives for Patients Rights (run by discredited hospital executive Rick Scott in conjunction with public relations professionals from the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth campaign) sent a database to the Tea Party Patriots Health Care Reform Committee list serve with information on over one hundred upcoming congressional town halls. Robert MacGuffie, a volunteer for FreedomWorks who runs the website Right Principles, also chipped in by providing a strategy memo for the Tea Partiers, instructing them to "rock-the-boat early in the Rep's presentation...yell out and challenge the Rep's statements early....rattle him, get him off his prepared script and agenda...stand up and shout and sit right back down."

His audience has taken those suggestions to heart. Raucous protesters disrupted several meetings last week, in many cases making it impossible to hear the speakers. On August 6, a town hall meeting in St. Louis was marred by a physical confrontation which resulted in multiple arrests. Hours later, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) -- whose members were involved in the altercation -- received the following anonymous voicemail message: "I suggest you tell your people to calm down, act like American citizens, and stop trying to repress people's First Amendment rights. That, or you all are gonna' come up against the Second Amendment."

Then, on August 7, an anti-health care reform protester in New Mexico named Scott Oskay Tweeted to his hundreds of followers to bring their licensed concealed handguns to town hall meetings, adding, "If ACORN/SEIU attends these townhalls for disruption, stop being peaceful, and hurt them. Badly." The following day, it was reported that several Tea Partiers brought handguns into a town hall organized by Rep. Steve Cohen (D-TN) in Memphis, Tennessee. Additionally, an attendee at a meet and greet with Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) in a supermarket dropped a handgun, leading her staff to call the police. Most recently, a man was filmed openly carrying a handgun outside of President Obama's town hall meeting in New Hampshire. He held a sign that read, "IT IS TIME TO WATER THE TREE OF LIBERTY!" a reference to the following Thomas Jefferson quote: "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants."

Exhortations to the right wing base to take armed political action against the Obama administration are far from idle talk--but instead reflect a deeply developed ideology that has been actively promoted by the National Rifle Association and other gun lobby groups for the past 30 years. It holds that the Second Amendment provides individuals with the right to commit acts of violence against our government should it lapse into "tyranny," effectively making firearms "the tools of political dissent." Or as NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre put it at this year's Conservative Political Action Conference, "The guys with the guns make the rules."

The problem is that there are already a substantial number of well-armed Americans who believe our democratically-elected government has become oppressive. Indeed, last week Tea Partiers at a town hall meeting in Tampa, Florida, heckled Rep. Kathy Castor (D-FL) with repeated chants of "Tyranny!" Far from furthering democracy, however, these individuals have made important debate impossible, thereby limiting the political rights of all those who disagree with them.

A commitment to political equality is our most sacred American value, and one that should be protected against all attempts at intimidation or violence. This was well understood by our nation's early leaders, including Abraham Lincoln, who famously declared, "Among free men, there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet." Then there was George Washington, who in his farewell address to the nation said, "The basis of our political systems is the right of the people to make and to alter their Constitutions of Government. But the Constitution which at any time exists, till changed by an explicit and authentic act of the whole people, is sacredly obligatory upon all. The very idea of the power and the right of the people to establish Government presupposes the duty of every individual to obey the established Government." Put simply, once the Constitution was ratified, our Founding Fathers did not take kindly to insurrectionists.

This year has already been marred by a series of horrific shootings involving individuals who hated our government and believed they had a constitutional right to strike against it: Richard Poplawski in Pittsburgh, James von Brunn in the District of Columbia, Scott Roeder in Wichita, Gilbert Ortez, Jr. in Texas, etc. With tensions escalating at town halls across the country, the overwhelming majority of Americans who wish to peacefully exercise their First Amendment rights must speak out against the violent, insurrectionist philosophy that has corrupted the Second Amendment.