03/11/2014 04:29 pm ET Updated May 11, 2014

Why Are So Many Conservative Politicians Brandishing Guns?

Yes, we know it's all a show, that it's all about appealing to (appeasing) the NRA crowd, and demonstrating that a buttoned-down insider like Mitch McConnell is really one of the guys. Fine. But I have to say, there's something about it that just feels sinister.

OK, so John Kerry pandered too in 2004, with his whole hunter shtick, but McConnell did something very different at CPAC this past week. He brought a gun to an explicitly political gathering (he then handed it to Sen. Tom Coburn (R-OK), as part of presenting Coburn with an NRA lifetime achievement award). Now, it's not like taking out your Colt .45 and laying it upon your desk on the Senate floor, but it's one more example of the mixing of politics and implicit violence that conservatives are deploying more and more often.

Among countless other examples, last month we saw Todd Staples, a candidate for lieutenant governor in Texas, run the following TV ad:

"You're not a king, and Texans bow to no one," Mr. Staples says, looking directly into the camera and addressing the president, before he is shown picking up a gun at a store, aiming it over a counter and vowing to "fight Obama's liberal agenda."

(snip) [Staples] ends on an equally aggressive note: "So, Mr. President, if you still want to mess with Texas, we've got a saying for you: Come and take it."

In response, Kathleen Hall Jamison, the head of the Annenberg Public Policy Center at the University of Pennsylvania, asked: "Why would [sic] need a gun to fight an agenda? You don't shoot a policy or shoot an agenda--you fight an agenda with words." Great question.

It doesn't appear that any of the other candidates criticized Staples (who ultimately won just over 16 percent of the vote in the Republican primary) about this ad, which clearly evokes the notion of violent resistance to the duly elected president of the United States.

That's a pleasant thought, isn't it?

I guess I had thought that at Appomattox Court House back in April of 1865 we'd settled the whole question of whether armed resistance could alter our democratic system. More broadly, I always believed that the beauty of democracy is that it is supposed to take violence out of the process of lawmaking. In a democracy, the vision that gets the most support wins, rather than the one with the most guns behind it.

Of course I know that violence remained a part of our politics in the years after 1865, that it was widespread violence that underlay Jim Crow and the suppression of the labor movement, just to name a couple of examples. But those are examples of which we should be ashamed, and from which we must learn. Instead of doing that, we have more and more images of politicians -- from both parties, albeit always in the service of showing off one's pro-NRA credentials -- brandishing guns as an ideological statement.

The extreme right wing has long contained elements of violent resistance bubbling below the surface. In just a few weeks, "Operation American Spring" intends to bring "1.8 million definite militia members" to the nation's capital. Through a massive protest, they claim that they will force President Obama to resign his office. The president, along with Attorney General Eric Holder and, for balance I guess, congressional leaders from both parties (presumably McConnell as well) will not only be out of a job, but will have to appear before a tribunal:

Those with the principles of a West, Cruz, Lee, DeMint, Paul, Gov Walker, Sessions, Gowdy, Jordan, Issa, will comprise a tribunal and assume positions of authority to convene investigations, recommend appropriate charges against politicians and government employees to the new U.S. Attorney General appointed by the new President.

But back to reality. Mitch McConnell knows that he would never actually use a weapon to get a bill passed through the Senate (although in 1856 Senator Charles Sumner was beaten into submission with a cane on the Senate floor for committing a "libel against South Carolina"). That's not the point. As bad as a TV ad is, in some ways it's even more shocking to see a United States senator, the leader of his party in the Senate, holding up a rifle at a political rally. In the kind of volatile environment we have now, the last thing America needs is politicians bringing guns into the political arena.