Tuesday, May 21, 2013

On Tyranny and Treason: NRA's Second Amendment Solution

speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on Februar...

speaking at CPAC in Washington D.C. on February 10, 2011. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
After the smoke cleared, the outcome of the push for reforms of the gun control laws ended in disappointment for the president and advocates of stricter regulations. The National Rifle Association (NRA), in defiance of the public will, managed to corral just enough votes to thwart new legislation.

What was most striking (for outsiders) was the argument that citizens must have combat weapons in order to prevent their own government from becoming tyrannical.

Most scholars agree that when the second amendment was adopted, it was conceived as a defense against an invasion of foreign armies, most notably the King of England, not as a stand-by rebellion against federal authority.

"A well-regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed." 

To throw some light on the exact meaning of those words -and its pre-revolutionary origins- the Supreme Court in 1887 gave this constitutional interpretation:
Undoubtedly, the framers . . . had for a long time been absorbed in considering the arbitrary encroachments of the Crown on the liberty of the subject . . . .
This view is supported by the words, “necessary to the security of a free state”- or in other words, a nation independent of its imperial origins. A kind of last defense ad hoc  army against imperial invasion. 

"Sic semper tyrannis"

Wayne LaPierre, CEO and Executive Vice President of the NRA appeared before a Senate Judiciary Committee in the aftermath of the calamity at Newtown. From that meeting a source give us this interesting quote:
"Senator, I think without any doubt, if you look at why our Founding Fathers put it there, they had lived under the tyranny of King George and they wanted to make sure that these free people in this new country would never be subjugated again and have to live under tyranny."
But if LaPierre feels there’s a risk of tyranny today, let him say it clearly. Who has the power to subjugate the United States today? From where does he expect this tyranny to emerge? If he knows something about an approaching police state, it really is his patriotic duty to inform Congress.
He didn't reveal anything but he implies it clearly enough. The threat that Americans must be armed against is their own government. He certainly wasn’t talking about an Iranian invasion or a Neo-Soviet Russia, Communist China. This tyrant will be home-grown.

In fact, LaPierre is advocating- without using the exact words- the right not merely to own a weapon but to overthrow his own government through armed force. Senators neglected to ask the most important question to LaPierre: who exactly decides what is and what is not tyranny? And the second most important question: Who decides the appropriate response to tyrannical rule?
Apparently, according to the NRA, anybody with enough firepower.

As Adam Winkler, a constitutional law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America.
"The idea that the Second Amendment protects the right to have guns to fight against the government used to be a fringe idea, just among militia groups and Second Amendment purists. But it's become much more mainstream over the last 10 years or so."
Thanks to the media, over the last few decades, so many former "fringe ideas" have gone mainstream. However, the idea that guns protect Americans against government encroachment is a dangerously slippery one.
One man’s liberty encroachment is another man’s law enforcement.
Such a view when it boils down to it is not the philosophy of patriotic citizens ready to defend their liberties-no matter how it is presented. It is, in truth, part and parcel of a terrorist ideology.

Every suicide bomber can, after all, use the same excuse. Casting aside the democratic system altogether, disregarding the power of representative government, ignoring the law of the land for the sake of a noble truth, indisputable right or principle, all of these things belong to the terrorist mentality.
History gives us plenty of proof that fighting tyrants is the creed of most political terrorists. John Wilkes Booth, for example. After murdering the president in cold blood at Ford's Theatre, Booth lept down to the stage and shouted at the stunned audience, "Sic Semper tyrannis" which means in Latin "Thus always to tyrants."

But more discerningly, just listen how one modern writer describes Booth's mentality. Historian Michael W. Kauffman in his book, American Brutus: John Wilkes Booth and the Lincoln Conspiracies writes:
"All the elements in Booth's nature came together at once – his hatred of tyranny, his love of liberty, his passion for the stage, his sense of drama, and his lifelong quest to become immortal."
But, despite this bit of glorification, Booth was no hero, not even in the South.

Speaking of Brutus, who was the most famous of all political assassins, this noble Roman felt that he too was striking a blow against tyranny. Instead, what occurred after the murder of Caesar was years of blood-soaked political chaos, followed by the imperial Rome and led by autocratic emperors who were kings in all but name. 
Exactly what Brutus abhorred.

Yes, I know.. ancient history. But let’s not forget that Timothy McVeigh considered blowing up a federal building to be a patriotic act against a tyrannical government.


In March 1995, in a fundraising letter, LaPierre castigated the tyranny of the government and the federal agents of the Clinton administration, calling them "jack-booted government thugs" who wear "Nazi bucket helmets and black storm trooper uniforms." 
Unhinged but colorful language. 
LaPierre also wrote:
In Clinton's administration, if you have a badge, you have the government's go-ahead to harass, intimidate, even murder law-abiding citizens.
Such hysterical remarks by LaPierre are not at all usual. In his career, he has made plenty. However, in retrospect, those particular metaphors should be considered phenomenally bad timing.

Less than a month later, on April 19, 1995, Tim McVeigh  (who followed gun shows across the country), used a car bomb to destroy the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, killed 168 people and injured more than 500. Nineteen of the victims had been babies and children.

One neighbor would later tell reporters that Tim had always talked patriotically of defending America. But the most important question here is, of course, who was he defending America against? Three guesses. That's right. The American government.
Whether or not McVeigh saw or was influenced by LaPierre’s bombast is impossible to prove. Much has been made about Waco but it is a mistake to think that was his prime motivator. Waco was, in his mind, only one example in the pattern of government tyranny. In a letter to Fox News, from death row, McVeigh wrote: 
I chose to bomb a federal building because such an action served more purposes than other options. Foremost, the bombing was a retaliatory strike; a counter attack, for the cumulative raids (and subsequent violence and damage) that federal agents had participated in over the preceding years (including, but not limited to, Waco.)
Turning patriotism on its head, McVeigh explains that his own government has become his enemy.
(F)ederal actions grew increasingly militaristic and violent, to the point where at Waco, our government - like the Chinese - was deploying tanks against its own citizens.
Knowledge of these multiple and ever-more aggressive raids across the country constituted an identifiable pattern of conduct within and by the federal government and amongst its various agencies. ... For all intents and purposes, federal agents had become "soldiers" (using military training, tactics, techniques, equipment, language, dress, organization, and mindset) and they were escalating their behavior.
One might argue that McVeigh was simply taking LaPierre’s remarks a little too literally. Irresponsible hysteria tends to embolden the unbalanced mind. But the connection between LaPierre’s anti-government statements and the Oklahoma City bombing did not go unnoticed.

Former president George H.W. Bush fired off a blistering letter to NRA, regarding comments that Wayne LaPierre had made in that NRA promotion. 
Bush called the LaPierre letter a “vicious slander against good people” and noted that he had personally known victims of the bombing who were also federal agents. Speaking of one victim, Bush wrote: 
He was no Nazi. He was a kind man, a loving parent, a man dedicated to serving his country -- and serve it well he did.
Bush was, in fact, so incensed by the remarks that he formally resigned from his lifetime  membership to the NRA. 
That was a major step of a (pretend) Texan, like George Bush, Sr.

Oppressor with a Familiar Face

That was not the only such misfire from those who promoted that particular argument against gun control.

Back in the early 60s, George H.W Bush- when the official record has him listed as an oil man in South Texas- had a front-row seat to what happens when inflammatory anti-government rhetoric becomes possibly combustible. 

Throughout the 1950s and 60s, Dallas Texas Oilman H. L. Hunt, one of the richest men in America at that time, used a daily 15-minute radio broadcasts called LIFELINES to promote his right-wing viewpoints. At that time, LIFELINES reached 295 radio stations throughout the Midwest. Hunt considered himself an ultra-conservative super-patriot and was willing to use his vast resources to promote his right-wing critiques against President Kennedy.

On one particular day, according to a 1991 issue of Texas Monthly, the broadcast contained a stern warning about gun control. The radio program predicted that if the present trends continued, there would come a time when Americans would no longer be allowed to own firearms. The broadcast pointed that under communism "no firearms are permitted the people because they would then have the weapons to rise up against their oppressors."

The wording is interesting: for example, to“rise up against” oppression rather than resist or repel an invasion. The implication is that the same thing could happen right here in the heartland of America, that oppression wouldn’t come from the outside, a Soviet invasion, for example. It would originate from a subverted American government.

The day of that broadcast was November 22, 1963. 

Hunt hoped the broadcast would leave an impression on the president who was visiting Dallas on that day. (His son was also responsible for a full-page ad in the local newspaper accusing the president of treason.) 

After the murder of the president, the backlash against Hunt and LIFELINES was immediate. While nobody -at that time, at least- actually accused Hunt of pulling the trigger, an editorial in the The New Republic, a liberal American magazine, noted that the LIFELINE broadcast was "the kind of program that the brooding Oswalds of the left- or the right-wing listen to and sometimes act on."

Also, in a nice twist on the motif, Jack Ruby, the murderer of the accused murderer of the president, also had copies of Hunt's LIFELINE broadcasts in his pockets when he was arrested. 

Like LaPierre, Hunt was unrepentant about his remarks and saw no possible connection between his words and the events that followed. 

The Bloody Price of Progress

Throughout the 60s, following that day in Dallas, there was much discussion on the matter. Both the House and Senate conducted hearings on a number of proposed pieces of legislation between 1963 and 1968. In 1965, the President asked Congress to review the federal role in gun control.

Like Obama's rather modest efforts, Johnson's bill was hardly an autocratic seizure of power. It raised gun dealer's fees, barred the sale of handguns, rifles and shotguns to anybody under the age of 21, and prohibited firearm sales to out of state buyers. And whatever his faults, President Johnson was- unlike Obama- a back-slapping politically-savvy deal maker. If anybody could have gotten a bill passed, it was Johnson. 

For a sample of what the news media was saying at that time, here is one example from the May 10, 1968, issue of LIFE magazine:

Ultimately, it would take the murder of a Democratic president, a Democratic presidential candidate and two progressive civil rights leaders to get the reforms passed. That's a pretty heavy price for one nation to pay for political reform.

More importantly, perhaps, it would take left-wing radical groups like the Black Panthers and the Weather Underground which preached the violent overthrow of the establishment to put the issue of gun control in political balance. When Weatherman-founder David Gilbert wrote 
"There is no example of a peaceful road to fundamental social change."
conservative minds finally had their own "come to Jesus" moment. Nothing brings the right wing to the negotiation table faster than radical leftist groups preaching violence. (The senseless murder of children in an elementary school apparently seems to have had no effect in changing attitudes.)

When Even the Victory is Bitter

The Gun Control Act of 1968 which sought to regulate the firearms industry and firearms owners, has been reviled by the NRA lobbyists ever since it was signed. In spite of the organization's opposition, what emerged was not the kind of legislation that any reform-minded president would boast about. 

The reforms found in the Gun Control Act of 1968 were, like the ones suggested by Obama, quite modest. For example, before the laws, one could literally buy almost any firearm that struck your fancy by mail order. (Indeed, Oswald purchased his 6.5 mm Carcano Model 91/38 rifle in this way.)

In the end, the Gun Control Act was so watered down that it could barely be called controlling at all. The legislation that resulted was unsatisfactory, for both sides of the issue.The Act, for example, required the purchaser of a gun to fill out a form for the retailer stating his name and swearing that he is not a minor, a felon, an addict or a lunatic. (And we all know how honest lunatics are.)
Life magazine in 1968 gave this vaguely-familiar review of the legislation:
The million-member NRA has led the opposition to federal gun-control laws with such success that even the bill being fought over in Congress last week had been stripped of the crucial provisions of gun registration and licensing of owners.
As a result [Harold] Glassen as unpaid owner of the NRA has become the focus of scorn of gun-control proponent- arguably the mightiest force ever to be thwarted by Congress. It includes the Johnson administration, Kennedy loyalists, leaders of both political parties, police chiefs, the FBI, the press and about 80% of the American public.
Back then, as today, the same arguments were used by the NRA leadership.
Glassen argues that registration might lead to confiscation of guns, that federal gun control wouldn't diminish crime, and that the whole matter should be left up to the states.

Sport and the Defense of the Home

Both sides agreed that one serious problem with that legislation was its vagueness built on compromise. A provision in the law was the so-called "sporting purpose" test. The sale of weapons could be banned unless “the firearms or ammunition are of a type generally recognized as particularly suitable for or readily adaptable to sporting purposes.” 

Yet , when it came to such weapons, what constituted a “sport?” “Generally recognized”? By whom? Still, the second amendment does specify "well-regulated" but if the government can't be trusted to decide even mundane issues like what is a sport and what isn't, then who can be in charge of the regulations? The NRA? 

As Preston K. Covey of Carnegie-Mellon University wrote in 1994,
The "sporting purpose" hypothesis presupposes that government has the authority to judge what counts as "legitimate" leisure or sport and the power to curtail leisure activities which it deems illegitimate. 
On man’s sports equipment is another man’s war machine.
"Some guns are useful only for assault, warfare, murder or mayhem - like the so-called 'assault weapons' (which should properly be called 'combat' firearms). Law-abiding civilians have no legitimate interest in assault, warfare, murder, or mayhem. Therefore, law-abiding civilians have no legitimate interest in combat firearms."
Ronald Reagan, a long-time NRA member and a victim of gun violence, supported a ban on combat weapons on precisely those grounds. In 1989, he said:
“I do not believe in taking away the right of the citizen for sporting, for hunting and so forth, or for home defense. But I do believe that an AK-47, a machine gun, is not a sporting weapon or needed for defense of a home.” 
This point of view has consistently been challenged by many in the NRA. Opponents of assault-weapons bans said that- Reagan or no Reagan- the premise flatly wrong. Law-abiding civilians do have a legitimate interest in combat. That interest, they say, is having a well-armed military defense against authority. Defense of the home means the defense of the homeland.
Protecting America from tyranny is, in their eyes, having the sufficient weaponry to effectively rebel against authority. A sort of constitutional right to have the enough firearms to defy the government if you don't agree with its policies.

That's a view apparently endorsed by the NRA. That's what LaPierre thinks, even after the Oklahoma City bombings. Even after thousands of examples in history and in our own times in the Middle-East and elsewhere where people are constantly deciding for themselves who the tyrants are.

Unfortunately for the NRA, that, to the outside observer looks a lot like treason.

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