Guns, Guns, Everywhere

It is important not to treat these incidents of public gun-carrying as merely the misguided behavior of a few. It is more than that; the acting out of central tenets of the extremist "gun rights" ideology.
09/21/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Every so often, we get a picture -- with crystal clarity -- of the kind of country the radical "gun rights" crowd wants America to be. It allows us to understand just how much is at stake in the gun control debate.

It apparently is not enough for opponents of the President's health care proposals to bring their signs and their voices to town hall meetings and Presidential speeches. Now they are bringing their guns.

Last week we were treated to a series of spectacles that had many rubbing their eyes in disbelief: an Arizona constituent of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords dropping a handgun while attending a "meet and greet" with Rep. Giffords at a local Safeway; a man bringing a concealed handgun to a town hall meeting with Rep. Steve Cohen of Memphis; a New Hampshire man standing outside the venue for a Presidential appearance on health care reform with a pistol openly strapped to his thigh.

The craziness continued this week. On Monday, a dozen people openly carrying guns were among the Obama protesters outside the Phoenix convention center where the President was giving a speech, including a gentleman who walked around with an AR-15 assault rifle strapped to his back, to say nothing of his openly-displayed handgun.

Judging from the public commentary about these stories, most Americans regard this behavior as bizarre, intimidating and dangerous, with frightening implications for the President's safety in particular. But it is important not to treat these incidents of public gun-carrying as merely the misguided behavior of a few individuals. It is more than that. What we are seeing is the acting out of two central tenets of the extremist "gun rights" ideology long espoused by the National Rifle Association and other radical Second Amendment absolutists.

The first tenet is that the more that law abiding citizens carry guns in public, the safer all of us will be. This view has led to a broadly successful campaign by the NRA to require authorities in most states to give out permits to carry concealed weapons to any adult without a criminal record. Once this beachhead was taken, the gun lobby moved methodically to allow concealed carry into more and more public places, including bars, churches, workplace parking lots, airports, parks, college campuses -- the list goes on and on. Indeed, in the infamous Thune Amendment, recently stopped in the Senate by only two votes, the gun lobby sought to protect gun carrying across state lines in complete derogation of the limits some states have placed on concealed carry licenses.

Much of the media attention to the recent spate of gun carriers has focused on their willingness to carry "openly" in full public view. A gun strapped to the thigh of an angry protester makes for great TV. But many Americans who find themselves appalled by these guns in plain sight need to realize that they are also exposed to the less visible risk of their fellow citizens carrying concealed weapons. Less visible, that is, until one of the "law abiding citizens" with a concealed carry permit commits a criminal act, like Richard Poplowski shooting and killing three police officers in Pittsburgh, Michael McLendon killing ten people in a rampage through rural Alabama, or George Soldini murdering three women and wounding nine others at a Pittsburgh-area fitness club.

That the Obama protesters are choosing to carry their guns openly implicates a second core principle of the radical "gun rights" ideology: the insurrectionist view of Second Amendment rights. This is the belief -- long a staple of NRA propaganda - that the Second Amendment is really about giving the people the right to resist their own government if it becomes a "tyranny". As an NRA official put it some years ago, "the Second Amendment... is literally a loaded gun in the hands of the people held to the heads of government." Whether the government has become a "tyranny" apparently is up to the individual to decide. For Timothy McVeigh, who had thoroughly absorbed this insurrectionist ideology, the Waco tragedy was sufficient justification to bomb a federal building in Oklahoma City.

The point of openly carrying guns at political events is to make a political statement and to do it in the most intimidating way possible. The statement is this: "You can have all the debates you want, but if laws are passed that I regard as 'tyranny,' I reserve the right to resist them by force of arms." The New Hampshire pistol-packer held a sign paraphrasing Thomas Jefferson's famous quotation, "The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants." In a later interview he warned that "we're traveling down a road at breakneck speed that's toward tyranny," suggesting that the time to refresh the tree of liberty may be fast approaching.

The Phoenix assault rifle carrier chillingly explained, "we will forcefully resist people imposing their will on us through the strength of the majority with a vote." In other words, the right to vote may give us the appearance of equality as citizens, but being armed makes some of us more equal than others. Or, in the words of the NRA's Wayne LaPierre recently speaking to the Conservative Political Action Committee, "the guys with the guns make the rules."

So there you have it. The radical "gun rights" vision of the ideal America. Guns in every corner of American society -- concealed or carried openly for all to see -- threatening our safety and our democracy. For most Americans, the "gun rights" vision is nothing but a nightmare.

For more information, see Dennis Henigan's new book, Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy.