Two weeks ago I urged a ban on assault weapons and high capacity magazines, because I argued that there are no reasonable civilian uses for them. But there are unreasonable ideas about why Americans need big guns, which are clearly displayed in some of the not very friendly responses I received, like the following, printed in its entirety: “Go f**k yourself and take your Liberal opinions with you. As a history prof why don’t you tell me about the Nazi’s, China, Mexico, etc... How’s that working out for the millions of dead that were oppressed by their government ??????”
I’m not sure what this respondent thinks about Mexico, but his argument for guns is clear: American civilians need powerful military-style weapons to defend ourselves against our own government, which he compares with Nazi Germany and Communist China. The opposition to gun control goes well beyond the National Rifle Association and has deep roots in right-wing extremism.
Exaggerated fears of our government have a long history. After World War II, the John Birch Society brought together extreme conservatives who saw every policy put forward by the federal government, both Republicans and Democrats, as proof that communists were controlling politics in Washington. They saw communist conspiracies behind every movement they didn’t like: in a 1965 flyer title “What’s Wrong With Civil Rights?”, they argued that the civil rights movement “has been deliberately and almost wholly created by the Communists”.
The Birchers were welcomed by conservative Republicans, and they were enthusiastic about Barry Goldwater’s candidacy in 1964. They were repudiated by more moderate Republicans, like Richard Nixon, but they lived on, warning about fluoridation, the United Nations, the Federal Reserve system, and “one world government.
Although the Birchers eventually lost influence, the conspiratorial right continued to spawn organizations dedicated to fighting the federal government. Often called the “patriot movement”, loosely organized extremists and tightly organized militia formations argue that our government is the greatest enemy of Americans’ constitutional freedoms. The feds were behind Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 bombing of the Murrah Federal building in Oklahoma City; the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is building concentration camps to detain patriotic Americans; politicians are conspiring to subordinate the US to a “New World Order”.
The election of Barack Obama as President has brought out the latent racism which was always part of this movement. Obama has become the lightning rod for ever more hysterical theories about the federal government as the enemy of the people. A major focus of the “patriot movement” is the United Nations Arms Trade Treaty, an attempt to control terrorists’ use of the international arms trade to gather weapons. It is instead perceived as a conspiracy by liberals and foreigners to take away Americans’ guns. These ideas have little to do with political reality, but that makes no difference to the spinners of conspiratorial nightmares.
The sudden “secession movement” is another expression of this anti-government sentiment. Within weeks of Obama’s reelection, about 700,000 people from every state put their names to online petitions to secede from the United States. While Americans of the left and right, often with silly motives, have joined this meaningless exercise in virtual secession, there is powerful anger in the depths of this movement.
This imaginary patriotism of right-wing extremists has been translated into a surge in demand for assault weapons, not for hunting or for protection against criminals, but to make war against our government. Offering far-fetched interpretations of the Constitution, demonizing immigrants, feminists, and liberals, and justifying their accumulation of weapons of mass destruction with reference to the Second Amendment, extremists of the far right dream of destroying our democracy, not protecting it.
They are angry and irrational. They are impervious to political discussion. They don’t care what the majority of Americans think. And they are buying big guns.
published in the Jacksonville Journal-Courier, January 8, 2013