One day after the horrific mass shooting at Chardon High School in Ohio, a lesser-noticed event occurred that yields equally important insights about the current state of America. On February 28, a man in Grand Rapids, Michigan walked into a polling place -- that also happened to be a public elementary school -- while openly carrying a loaded handgun. Nicholas Looman wanted to vote in the Republican presidential primary, and he also "wanted to make a point that he should be allowed to carry" a gun while voting. Looman was asked to leave after he voted. Now he's demanding an apology and threatening to sue law enforcement, claiming that his "rights" were violated.
His rights? Let's be clear... The landmark Supreme Court decision on the Second Amendment from 2008, District of Columbia v. Heller, found that the right to keep and bear arms is about individuals protecting "hearth and home." And that there certainly is no right to carry firearms wherever and whenever one wants -- much less at a school or voting site. The idea that there is a right to "vote and carry" would be laughable if it did not expose a dangerous ideology that, if left unchecked, will fundamentally change our democratic system.
Our Founders drafted our Constitution explicitly to prevent force -- or the threat of force -- from influencing the political system. "Freedom" was understood as the ability of the government to abide by the rule of law without interference from an unelected monarch or a frothing mob. In fact, the duty of the Militia, as defined in Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution, is to "suppress Insurrections," not to foment them. Carrying a gun into a polling place or a legislative body turns that history on its head by making the statement that "The guys with the guns make the rules." Our country declared its independence under the banner of political equality. We must have the freedom to exercise our right to vote without being exposed to a show of force by someone who might disagree with us politically. And it's entirely possible that Looman's behavior alarmed and or/intimidated other voters on Tuesday.
Looman admits that he regularly "open carries" a firearm. Open Carry is not necessary for self-defense--just about every state that allows the practice also has liberal Concealed Carry laws. Open Carry is instead a political statement in the best tradition of John Wilkes Booth, Timothy McVeigh, Sharron Angle and Ted Nugent. The message is, "Voting is peachy, but if we can't get what we want through the ballot, we reserve the right to administer 'Second Amendment remedies.'" Such insurrectionist ideology has been spoon-fed to right wing Americans for years by the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its Executive Vice-President, Wayne LaPierre.
And now it seems that insurrectionists and their allies are losing patience altogether with the voting part of the equation. Virginia State Senator Janet Howell was on to something when she recently observed that, "It's going to be harder to vote in Virginia than it is now to buy a gun." She was commenting on voter suppression legislation that is making its way through the Virginia legislature juxtaposed with the repeal of the state's longstanding One-Handgun-a-Month law.
And Virginia is not alone... Many GOP-controlled state legislatures across the nation are now moving to implement voter suppression laws before the 2012 elections. Of the eight states that require residents to show photo identification before voting -- Texas, Georgia, Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, Kansas, Indiana and Wisconsin -- all allow residents to purchase firearms through private sales without undergoing any type of background check or showing any form of identification. These sales are cash and carry, and no paperwork is required. 23 other states require residents to produce some form of identification before voting (though not necessarily a photo ID). Of those 23, only Rhode Island prohibits all private sales of firearms (Connecticut requires background checks for private sales of handguns only). Finally, in a development that may or not be coincidental, some states are now allowing residents to use a concealed handgun permit as an acceptable document to verify identity when voting, but not a student ID card issued by a public university.
This has pro-gun extremists excited. Just last week, one Tweeted at my organization to tell us that "votes are more dangerous than guns." Another pro-gunner from North Carolina then added, "They are. Just ask Bell, Douglas, and Breckinridge [Abraham Lincoln's opponents in the 1860 presidential election]."
Does anyone seriously believe that this was the vision of our Founders? That guys who carry a gun on their hips 24/7 are somehow "super-citizens" with greater political rights than senior citizens, minorities, the impoverished, those trying to better themselves through education, or others without immediate access to identification documents? Wasn't it Second Amendment author James Madison who once criticized state legislators for catering to the interests of powerful constituencies at the expense of others, stating that "so far from being the Representatives of the people, they are only an assembly of private men, securing their own interest to the ruin of the Commonwealth." Seriously, when you can buy a trunk-load of AK-47s without government-issued identification but you can't vote - something is seriously wrong with our democracy.
It's certainly not representative of the compact that was created by the ratification of the U.S. Constitution, of the country that risked everything to preserve the rule of law in the Civil War. As Lincoln famously wrote, "Among free men, there can be no successful appeal from the ballot to the bullet; and that they who take such appeal are sure to lose their case, and pay the cost." Let's hope he is still correct.