Opponents of any new restrictions on guns turned up at every state capital on Saturday, some carrying weapons where they were allowed to do so. The demonstrators were peaceful and law-abiding, by all accounts, but some suggested they might not stay that way.
Organized largely on-line, through mailing lists and Facebook pages, the mobilization wasn’t massive–but it didn’t have to be. Gun rights enthusiasts wanted to show that resistance to new laws wasn’t limited to the National Rifle Association’s lobbyists, but could also be seen at the grassroots.
The largest turnout I could find was reported as 2,000 people, in Albany, New York, where the state legislature had just passed the strictest gun laws in the United States. In Pierre, South Dakota, where new restrictions aren’t remotely visible on the horizon, the turnout appeared to be in the dozens.
This all makes sense, and not just because so many more people live in New York than South Dakota. People respond to threats. The resurrected push for modest gun control steps follows in the wake of the tragic school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut. The current tangle of restrictions and loopholes seems far less satisfactory to many people than it did a month ago. And longtime supporters of gun control recognize that they now have a new chance to make the case they’ve been trying to make for years.
The appreciators participating in Gun Appreciation Day also feel threatened, just after President Obama announced nearly two dozen executive actions and made specific proposals for Congressional attention, and just before he takes the oath of office for another four year term–and just before the celebration of Martin Luther King Day. In speeches, interviews and on placards, they argue that these new restrictions would not have prevented the shootings in Newtown, won’t make anyone safer, and violate the second amendment. (For a sample of comments, see the Washington Times report.)
Some warn that any new restrictions will prevent American citizens from effectively defending themselves from an increasingly tyrannical government. This is a tough argument to make, largely because even the semi-automatic rifles targeted by a ban on assault weapons are no match for the forces national, state, and even local governments can muster. (Private citizens can’t legally buy automatic weapons. In the most fundamentalist gun rights opinion the Supreme Court has ever delivered, District of Columbia v. Heller , Justice Scalia emphasized that the second amendment right was NOT unlimited.) The Confederacy had ready access to arms, as did Randy Weaver at Ruby Ridge, as did the Black Panthers, and MOVE in Philadelphia. For good or ill, we live in an era of states.
The more effective defense against federal gun control initiatives is a Constitutional system that favors the opponents of change, and the virtually unwavering fealty that the NRA and other gun rights groups demand from the people they help elect.
So why demonstrate at all? The demonstrations remind gun rights supporters of a battle they may be engaged in, underscoring and overstating the proximate threat of a president moved by the massacre of school children to try to do something. It also connects them with like-minded people and reminds them all of the organizations that work on their behalf in Washington, DC.
The NRA won’t be depending upon local demonstrations to stop President Obama’s initiatives, but such protests are another tool that few groups can afford to write off. And, in the meantime, gun rights advocates have gotten their story in the newspapers across the country on yet another day.