On Monday, it was national news when a man (identified only as "Chris") appeared at a health care rally in Phoenix, Arizona, openly and legally carrying an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle and a semiautomatic handgun. He was not alone. While President Obama addressed a Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) convention directly across the street, Phoenix police and Secret Service agents actively monitored "Chris" and twelve others who openly carried handguns (it is unknown how many of the protesters were carrying concealed handguns, which is also legal in Arizona with a permit).
Like William Kostric (who openly carried a handgun outside of President Obama's town hall meeting in New Hampshire with a sign that read, "IT IS TIME TO WATER THE TREE OF LIBERTY!") before him, "Chris" initially told the press that he was carrying these weapons to exercise his Constitutional rights, stating, "In Arizona, I still have some freedoms." [Never mind that Justice Scalia made it perfectly clear that there is no Second Amendment right to carry a firearm in public in last year's District of Columbia v. Heller decision.]
The media overlooked the implications of these words, focusing instead (and understandably) on the public safety aspects of the incident. A new video from the Freedom"s Phoenix website, however, leaves no doubt as to exactly what type of Second Amendment "right" "Chris" was attempting to vindicate that day. When asked about his AR-15 rifle, "Chris" states that "it aids me in my resistance efforts." The video then records him saying the following during the rally:
"[The government says,] 'I want education, and I'm just going to take it from you' ... 'I want this that, this that, this that. I'll just vote and take it from you.' Well, eventually in America people will be able to say, 'no.' If the burden of all this thievery gets too thick and you can't make it anymore, if that's what's necessary, that's what's necessary. What do you think we did in the revolution, in the American Revolution? The British weren't stealing money from us for health care. They weren't taxing us the way they are now back then. And what did we do? We forcefully kicked them out of our country, and we will forcefully resist people imposing their will on us through the strength of the majority with a vote. Just because you sick a government on people doesn't make it morally OK to steal money from them. Taxation is theft--all taxation, all taxation."
It was later revealed on CNN that "Chris" and his interviewer had planned the appearance as a publicity stunt for the conservative radio show "Declare Your Independence With Ernest Hancock." However, their statements and actions, while contrived, were, according to them, sincere.
In a book I recently co-authored with Casey Anderson, Guns, Democracy, and the Insurrectionist Idea, we note that the U.S. Constitution was drafted with the idea that we should have a government that--while protective of individual rights--has enough power to execute the will of a majority. The drafting of the Constitution, of course, was partially inspired by mob violence in major American cities and Shay"s Rebellion, where a group of farmers in Massachusetts used force to temporarily usurp the power of local governments in a dispute over taxation. While our country was born out of revolution, our Founders quickly realized it could not be governed in a state of perpetual revolution. George Washington and the other Founders gathered in Philadelphia to craft a document that could respond to this political violence. Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution states that one of the purposes of the Militia is to "suppress Insurrections," not to foment them. The Congress was also permitted to raise a standing Army.
The reason such clauses were important is that without a strong central government, individual citizens would have been able to continue to disregard lawful statutes, thereby violating the rights of all Americans who disagreed with them politically. Abraham Lincoln picked up on this theme when he remarked on secession, saying, "This issue embraces more than the fate of these United States ... It presents the question, whether discontented individuals, too few in numbers to control administration ... can always ... break up their government, and thus practically put an end to free government on earth." With the Union victory in the Civil War, that question should have been settled once and for all.
Today's self-styled "patriots" are eager to recall 1776, but fail to understand the tempering influences of the Constitution. Armed health care protesters have made it clear that individual safety is not their primary concern--instead their show of force at these events is a reminder to elected officials that, in their view, armed citizens have the final say. This elevation of "individual sovereignty" over the Constitutionally-mandated democratic process is the antithesis of what our Founders fought for.
The means to dissent in our modern democracy are many. We have free and fair elections, we have courts, we have the rule of law and, most importantly, we have a national commitment to political equality. Brandishing weapons as a method of political expression is a clear demonstration that one does not respect the political equality of one's fellow citizens; and it is at odds with our most fundamental values as Americans.
There are many laws that I might not like or agree with (such as those that allow individuals to openly carry assault weapons at political rallies), but I have chosen to exercise my democratic rights by engaging my fellow citizens and elected officials in a peaceful, thoughtful and vigorous debate. The First Amendment is an important right and powerful tool and should not be undermined by a radical interpretation of the Second Amendment. If we let "the guys with the guns make the rules" then the very fabric of our democracy is up for grabs.