Right Wing Militias and the NRA: Second Amendment Soulmates

This week's Time magazine cover story
on "The Secret World of Extreme Militias" sounds an alarm that cannot
be ignored. The threat of terrorism is real, but it does not originate
with Al Qaeda alone. The danger of homegrown right wing political
violence is just as real.

The Time article describes, in chilling terms, the
proliferation of heavily armed, right wing militias engaged in
paramilitary training to resist the perceived "tyranny" of government
authority. Time notes that although the groups and individuals
of the violent right reflect a "complex web" of ideologies, "among the
most common convictions is that the Second Amendment -- the right to
keep and bear arms -- is the Constitution's cornerstone, because only a
well-armed populace can enforce its rights." For the militias and their
ideological soulmates, "any form of gun regulation, therefore, is a
sure sign of intent to crush other freedoms."

The connection between the gun control issue and the threat of
violence from the right is an important, but largely untold, story. The
militias' view that the Second Amendment protects our other rights, by
ensuring the potential for armed insurrection against the government, is
indistinguishable from the long-held constitutional ideology of the
National Rifle Association.

For decades, NRA leaders have insisted that the Second Amendment is
not only about duck hunting or self-defense against criminal attack.
Rather, as one NRA official so colorfully put it,
"the Second Amendment . . . is literally a loaded gun in the hands of
the people held to the heads of government." NRA Executive Director
Wayne LaPierre received loud cheers when he told
last year's Conservative Political Action Conference that our rights as
Americans mean little unless we are ready to defend them against the
government by force of arms: "Freedom is nothing but dust in the wind
till it's guarded by the blue steel and dry powder of a free and armed
people . . . . Our founding fathers understood that the guys with the guns make the rules."

The Time reporter asked one Ohio militia officer what
government action the militia is defending against. He replied, "Most
likely it will start when the government tries to take our guns." Of
course, the NRA stands alone in its ability to inspire hysterical fears
of gun confiscation. During the last Presidential campaign, the NRA
maintained a www.gunbanobama.com
website and its delusional rhetoric about the Administration's supposed
gun-banning intentions has been unrelenting. Looking forward to the
upcoming elections, LaPierre seeks to rally the NRA troops by warning of "dark clouds on the horizon," with Democrats "lying in the weeds in wait to pick their time to destroy this freedom."

The determination of NRA leaders to generate paranoia and hatred
toward the government has gotten them into trouble before. In a
now-infamous fundraising letter sent on April 13, 1995, LaPierre warned
his members about the "jack-booted government thugs" of the federal
Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, who have the "power
to take away our Constitutional rights, break in our doors, seize our
guns, destroy our property, and even injure or kill us . . . ." Six
days later, as NRA members found this noxious letter in their mail,
Timothy McVeigh, convinced that the time to resist federal tyranny had
arrived, bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City that housed the
local offices of the ATF.

The Time article quotes a "self-described colonel" in a
Kentucky militia, who channels LaPierre's incendiary rhetoric by
predicting war with "the jackbooted thugs of Washington." LaPierre has
made a career of spreading the nonsense that the "jackbooted thugs" are
always "lying in the weeds" waiting for the chance to take away
everyone's guns. It also is revealing that Richard Mack, one of the
sheriffs recruited years ago by the NRA to challenge the Brady Bill in
court, is now a hero of the violent right. In an interview with the Time reporter, Mack referred to federal agents as "America's gestapo".

What is truly disturbing is that the political influence of the NRA
has given its insurrectionist view of the Second Amendment a home in
some very high places, particularly within the Republican Party. It's
not just Tea Party Republicans like Nevada Senatorial candidate Sharron
Angle, with her call
for "Second Amendment remedies," to be used "when our government
becomes tyrannical." As the Republican Party has become more and more
ideologically "pure" in its support of NRA policy positions,
insurrectionist talk has made some surprising appearances.

For me, the most striking example surfaced in the legal briefs filed before the U.S. Supreme Court in the landmark Heller
Second Amendment case. Bush Administration Solicitor General Paul
Clement filed a brief which, paradoxically, both infuriated the "gun
rights" crowd and endorsed the insurrectionist theory of the Second
Amendment. The pro-gun folks were enraged that the Clement brief
actually argued for reversal of the D.C. Circuit's ruling striking down
the District of Columbia handgun ban. Clement's brief suggested that
the case be sent back to the lower court for further fact-finding.
Largely unnoticed was Clement's comment that the Second Amendment
guarantees "an armed citizenry as a deterrent to abusive behavior by the
federal government itself."

This is a remarkable statement by a lawyer for the United States
government. Does it not maintain that the potential for citizens to
fire upon federal agents is an important constitutional value? Does it
not imply that the greatest Second Amendment protection should be given
to citizens who are arming themselves against the threat of government
abuse, like the rightwing militias now training with assault rifles?
Does this theory mean that Timothy McVeigh was engaged in
constitutionally protected conduct as he built his bomb, because the
threat of violence is "a deterrent to abusive government behavior"? It
is noteworthy that Mr. Clement, as a private attorney, represented the
NRA in the McDonald case, in which the Supreme Court struck down the Chicago handgun ban.

It will, of course, be loudly protested that the Bush Justice
Department did not advocate violence against the government, nor does
the NRA and Sharron Angle. This misses the point. The issue is not
whether they have advocated violence against the government, but rather
whether they have constructed a constitutional justification for
violence. When right wing militias, or lone extremists, take that
justification seriously, and act on it, no one should be surprised.

For more information, see Dennis Henigan's Lethal Logic: Exploding the Myths that Paralyze American Gun Policy (Potomac Books 2009)

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