Last week, pro-gun activists descended on the greater Washington area to stage two events. The "Restore the Constitution Open-Carry Rally" was conducted in Fort Hunt National Park, and attendees came armed with handguns, rifles, shotguns and assault weapons. The "Second Amendment March" took place in the shadow of the Washington Monument, where attendees were prohibited from carrying firearms by the District of Columbia's tough laws. The date on which the rallies were held--April 19--was significant. It marked the anniversary of the first shots being fired in the American Revolution at the Battle of Lexington/Concord, the fiery conclusion to the 1993 siege at Waco, and the 1995 bombing of the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City by Timothy McVeigh.
The media, understandably, focused largely on harsh anti-government rhetoric of the speakers at the rallies. Larry Pratt, the Executive Director of Gun Owners of America (GOA), told attendees at the D.C. rally, "We're in a war. The other side knows they're at war, because they started it. They're coming for our freedom, for our money, for our kids, for our property." Mike "Break Their Windows" Vanderboegh, the former Alabama militia leader, angrily announced at the Fort Hunt rally, "Whenever the legislators endeavor to take away and destroy the property of the people, or to reduce them to slavery under arbitrary power, they put themselves into a state of war with the people, who are thereupon absolved from any further obedience ... We are done backing up! Done! Not one more inch."
Such comments were disturbing, dangerous and newsworthy. But underneath the surface noise of these events, there were some subtler insights into gun rights politics that are worth noting.
For starters, as Michael Paul Williams recently pointed out in a Richmond-Times Dispatch column, there was shockingly little talk about actual gun issues at the two Second Amendment rallies. That reflects the fact that Barack Obama has not signed a single gun control measure into law during his 15 months as president. Instead, President Obama has signed two National Rifle Association (NRA)-drafted amendments into law. One of these amendments legalized the carrying of loaded firearms in National Parks. The irony was glaring as armed speakers at Fort Hunt National Park warned of a federal government that was encroaching on their liberties.
There was, however, a great deal of talk about other hot-button issues at the two events. A "Resistance Pledge" circulated on the "Restore Our Constitution" rally website called for open--and, if necessary, criminal--opposition to laws pertaining to health care and climate change. The organizer of that rally, Daniel Almond, explained, "We've got health insurance mandates that require someone purchase a certain type of health insurance. There's no authorization in the American Constitution...for the federal government to do that. Another example would be the bank bail-outs. There's no authorization for the government to bail out companies deemed too big to fail." Attendees at the rallies railed about other non-gun-related issues, such as U.S. involvement in the United Nations and federal emergency response.
Then there was the matter of the low attendance at the rallies. The Washington Post estimated about 50 attendees at Fort Hunt and approximately 2,000 in D.C. This was far less than anyone--including the organizers themselves--anticipated. I suspect the overwhelming majority of gun owners in America were repulsed by the virulently anti-government, borderline treasonous message of the rallies. A recent survey by noted Republican pollster Frank Luntz found that strong majorities of gun owners support a broad range of federal firearms regulation.
But the organizer of the Second Amendment March in the District fingered a different culprit--the NRA. Skip Coryell said the gun lobby organization "let us down on this one." Speculating about their motives for not formally sponsoring his event, he stated, "I think it's because they see us as a competing entity. The NRA-- they're very political. They're strong, they're big, they're powerful, they have a big lobby. And they didn't want to share a piece of the pie ... There should have been 20,000 people here. If the NRA had supported us, there would have been."
Coryell was right. The NRA did send out some web alerts for the event, but that was about it. It was therefore revealing to see the NRA manning a booth at the Second Amendment March, where they took contributions and signed up members.
The NRA, of course, is as responsible as anyone for the message that was heard at the Second Amendment rallies. For the past 30 years, their fear-mongering fundraising letters have told gun owners that the government is an enemy intent on confiscating their firearms. Additionally, they have informed their supporters that the Second Amendment provides an individual right to confront a "tyrannical" government with violence. One year ago, NRA CEO Wayne LaPierre defiantly declared at the Conservative Political Action Conference, "The guys with the guns make the rules."
This type of rhetoric has been a boon to membership and fundraising efforts, but as an Inside-the-Beltway lobbying organization that must do business with the government it vilifies, the NRA can't afford to be seen in public with those who take their message to heart. Let's face it--comments like, "If the present course of human events don't change, then we will have another bloody revolution," sound more like the pronouncements of a terrorist organization than a group of patriots dedicated to constitutional government. Coryell was wrong about one thing, however--the NRA does not see the insurrectionists as competition, but rather as fodder for their well-oiled political machine.
The problem is that the barbarians are not content to play nice in the halls of Congress like NRA lobbyist Chris Cox and his team of suits. When the insurrectionists compare the Obama administration's policies to the enslavement of Jews in the Warsaw ghettos they are--unfortunately--quite serious.
Counterterrorism expert Richard Clarke recently observed on the "Real Time with Bill Maher Show": "Where are the people in the Republican Party standing up to the extremists? I'm from Virginia and there was a rally in Virginia on April 19th commemorating the day of the Oklahoma City attack where people were encouraged to carry their guns to the rally. Where were the Republican Party leaders criticizing that? I only heard Democrats criticize that." His concerns are well-founded.
The NRA has lost control of the monster it helped to create--if it ever had any to begin with. There is now a segment within the gun rights community that is hostile to all progressive interests and believes it has a right to use firearms to counter the results of our democratic process. We are likely to see more threats and violence if Conservative leaders do not stand up and state unequivocally that such conduct draws its inspiration from Timothy McVeigh, not Thomas Jefferson.