Last year at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), the National Rifle Association's Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre told America, "The guys with the guns make the rules." After Jared Loughner ("You don't have to accept the federalist laws") took the NRA's advice to heart and shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and federal judge John Roll at Tucson--along with 17 other innocents--LaPierre took the stage at CPAC again on Thursday to deliver an angry, fear-mongering speech that seemed to call the very legitimacy of our government into question.
LaPierre's invective touched on a number of emotional touchstones for the Conservative Movement in the U.S. "Government has failed us with our money," he told CPAC attendees. "It's failed us with our financial institutions. It's failed in running our post offices and our trains. It's failed in enforcing our immigrations laws and our drug laws, and our laws on the books against violent criminals with guns. Heck, they can barely get the snow plowed." In LaPierre's revisionist history, it wasn't loose gun laws and violent politic rhetoric that led to Tucson. It was the government's creation of "gun-free zones" and "anti-self defense laws" that were at fault. Such policies, in LaPierre's view, "condemned the victims [in Tucson] to death without so much as a prayer."
For a minute, forget the sheer hypocrisy of it all. Forget that Arizona has some of the weakest gun laws in the nation, allowing individuals to carry loaded handguns in public without any type of permit or screening. Forget that an armed citizen was on the scene in Tucson, and nearly shot a good Samaritan who had already disarmed Loughner. Forget that the NRA described the Brady Bill as an "executioner's tool" and filed lawsuits in nine states to void it entirely (the Supreme Court wouldn't go that far, but did agree with the NRA in Printz v. U.S. that the federal government couldn't compel local police to conduct background checks on gun purchasers). Forget that the NRA has fought vehemently against the renewal of the Assault Weapons Ban, which includes a ban on high-capacity ammunition magazines. Forget even that LaPierre's sole motivation is profit for the gun industry.
Forget all that, and let's look at the crux of LaPierre's speech -- a disturbing call for the privatization of law enforcement through the implementation of a militia movement untethered to government authority.
LaPierre opened his argument at CPAC with the familiar refrain that government is an "abject failure" that "can't protect us." He suggested that the United States is currently in a state of lawlessness, rattling off statistics about murder, rape, assault and theft and telling CPAC attendees, "As soon as you leave this hall, your life is in jeopardy." Simultaneously, he lamented budget cuts to police departments across the country.
But LaPierre isn't seeking to use his organization's political muscle to restore this funding. Instead, his formula for securing communities is the activation of neighborhood militias. Referring to the current situation in Egypt, LaPierre stated, "Anyone who thinks the Second Amendment is outdated had better take a look at what is happening in Egypt right now." His takeaway from the revolution is an idyllic fantasy about "[armed] citizens coming together, in the face of lawlessness, to protect their neighborhoods." This is in stark contrast to the rest of the world, which witnessed (and documented) the awesome power of nonviolence as a force for democratic change in Egypt.
LaPierre's homage to citizen militias sounds curiously familiar. Following Hurricane Katrina, the NRA promoted a conspiracy theory about mass gun confiscations in Katrina and compared New Orleans officials to Mao, Stalin and Hitler. In reality, citizens who decided to remain in the city were well armed, including a private militia in Algiers Point, a predominantly white neighborhood that remained relatively dry and undamaged. In the words of a Nation reporter, "They stockpiled handguns, assault rifles, shotguns and at least one Uzi and began patrolling the streets in pickup trucks and SUVs. The newly formed militia, a loose band of about fifteen to thirty residents, most of them men, all of them white, was looking for thieves, outlaws or, as one member put it, anyone who simply 'didn't belong.'" Evidence indicates that at least 11 African-Americans were attacked and shot in the neighborhood as they attempted to reach a nearby evacuation zone. The militia members openly bragged about their exploits, stating, "It was like pheasant season."
Algiers Point showed that government is a necessary ingredient in ensuring public safety. Without an impartial mechanism to resolve disputes and enforce judgments, there can be no individual rights. When the government is not present to enforce the rule of law, there is no such thing as the presumption of innocence or the protections of the jury system. As historian Saul Cornell put it, "Without legal authority, a group of armed citizens acting on their own [is] little more than a riotous mob." While it may be true that private arms can provide a measure of self-defense, in Algiers Point we saw firsthand how "law-abiding" citizens with guns don't always do the right thing.
This theme is not without precedent--it was an animating factor in the drafting of our own Constitution. The idea that Second Amendment author James Madison would have embraced the NRA's radical anti-government ideology ignores both our history and the Founding Father's own words. When asked about the potential power of the federal government at Virginia's ratifying convention, Madison offered the following: "There never was a government without force. What is the meaning of government? An institution to make people do their duty. A government leaving it to a man to do his duty, or not, as he pleases, would be a new species of government, or rather no government at all." Furthermore, Madison described the lawlessness of armed mobs during Shays' Rebellion as a "warning" to our young nation. In the Federalist Papers he wrote--correctly--that, "Liberty may be endangered by the abuse of liberty as well as by the abuses of power ... The former rather than the latter is apparently most to be apprehended by the United States." Undoubtedly, Madison would have been deeply troubled by the extralegal aggression of the Hutaree and other contemporary "Patriot" groups.
On February 10, when Wayne LaPierre declared, "I have a right to protect myself [with a gun] ... I won't give up my right to exercise this freedom, not one single inch," he was indicating that might makes right, and government has no business refereeing private violence, no matter what the collateral damage. This is completely antithetical to the very concept of government, which serves to safeguard us from the brutal excesses of the state of nature. We must recognize that the NRA's insurrectionist ideology not only presents a grave threat to precious human life, but also undermines the very purpose of our Constitution.