Thursday, August 27, 2009

Do You Really Need Your Gun at a Political Event?

One of the more interesting manifestations of anger at some recent town hall meetings and at President Obama’s speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars convention is the appearance at these events of citizens brazenly displaying weapons, including semi-automatic rifles. I’m not concerned that there was any threat to President Obama’s safety; the protesters were outside the auditorium and were most likely kept far from President Obama’s ingress and egress route. I don’t know if the same can be said of the town hall events at which armed protestors have appeared.

I’m sure that some may want to talk about the Second Amendment right to bear arms. I’ve discussed that in the past and I don’t feel like rehashing the issue now. But the issue of whether people should have the right to bear arms at a political event is, to me, a red herring. The real question is this: Why do these people bring their weapons to these kinds of events? What is the purpose of brandishing a weapon — even calling the news media to be sure that they know to show up and video the display of that weapon — at a political event? I’d be curious to know if these people wear their guns and carry their assault rifles when they go to the grocery or the bank or to see their doctor or their kids in a school play. If so, I guess the question is what these people are so worried about that they feel the need to “pack heat” everywhere they go. But, if not, then the question becomes why they chose to carry — and actively display — those weapons at a political event.

I suppose if the focus of the particular event was gun control, the display of weaponry might make some kind of sense as a show of support for gun rights. But given that the focus of this summer’s town hall meetings has largely been healthcare reform, I don’t see the link between the issue and firearms. Unless, of course, the real issue isn’t healthcare reform at all, but rather, fear and loathing of the government. Bringing a gun to a political event must, it seems to me, have some kind of political statement attached to it; otherwise, why bother? After all, wouldn’t a big “I Oppose the Public Option!” sign be just as effective a means to demonstrate opposition to healthcare reform legislation?

So, if a political statement is being made with a gun, what should we interpret that statement to be? The only thing that I can think of is an implicit (or explicit) threat: “If we don’t get our way, remember that we’re armed!” What else could be the point of bringing guns to a political event? Consider the frequent recitation of Thomas Jefferson’s “blood of patriots and tyrants” quotation and see if you can come up with another explanation for the appearance of weaponry. The display of weaponry may also be calculated to dissuade proponents of healthcare reform from confronting the opponents; after all, who is going to walk up to an armed protester to strike up a discussion on a hotly debated political issue?

Some people have pointed to an incident in 2000 when members of the New Black Panther Party marched outside the convention of the Texas Republican Party with assault rifles. My view on that event is no different from my view of the current display of weaponry. The New Black Panther Party was apparently protesting then Gov. George W. Bush’s refusal to intervene in a scheduled execution. That show of force was, in essence, no different than the current show of force. Of course, in the case of the New Black Panther Party, I think that most of us can agree that they represent a decidedly fringe element of the body politic; query whether those attending political events this summer with weapons represent the fringe or the actual conservative core of the Republican party?

In any event, how are we any different from nations like __________ [insert the name of your favorite third world country] when we view it as acceptable to threaten our elected leaders, even implicitly, with violence? And does the presence of weaponry at events at which passions are running high and tempers are being lost worry anyone else? We’ve seen pushing and shoving and a few fistfights. Should we be concerned about the presence of weaponry in that environment?

People may have a right to carry a gun in public and to come to a political event armed. But that doesn’t mean that they should. The principal message being conveyed by the brandishing of weaponry at a political event is the threat of violence if those who are armed don’t get their way. America’s democratic system works through the ballot box, not through the barrel of a gun. Violence — or even the implicit threat of violence — has no place in American politics. While it may not be possible to ban the presence of guns, responsible voices should be doing everything they can to discourage people from bringing their weapons to political events. But when the only voices that a portion of the right will listen to are Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, and their ilk, then not only do I not have high hopes for the tension to be ratcheted down, I’m actually concerned that passions and tempers could be inflamed further still. And that, with the presence of weapons, would be a truly dangerous combination.

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