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January 11, 2010

These Second Amendment "Rights" Need to Be Exorcised

Following a summer that saw far-right-wing activists bringing guns to political events across the country, two more recent incidents suggest that it wasn’t just the heat driving the “open carry” craze.

On December 20, 2009, Leonard Embody walked into Radnor Lake State Park in Tennessee with a loaded AK-47 pistol, reportedly with the intention of testing a new state law allowing those with concealed carry permits to bring their handguns into state parks. One woman who encountered Embody in the park reported, “He was wearing military boots and a black skull cap. He didn’t look like the friendliest of guys. It was scary.” Soon, park rangers appeared on the scene and questioned Embody at gunpoint.

The rangers were apparently confused about whether his AK-47 was a rifle, which would have been illegal in the park. On OpenCarry.org, Embody wrote that one of the rangers said he “had never heard of a 7.62x39 handgun” (the 7.62x39mm cartridge was originally designed during World War II and is common in military-style rifles). The practice of shortening assault-style rifles into pistol-sized handguns to make them more easily concealable began in the late 1990s. According to the Director of the Violence Prevention Research Program at UC Davis, Dr. Garen Wintemute, (who has photographed these weapons at gun shows across the country), “Less than 24 inches long, [these guns] use the same ammunition and high-capacity magazines that the rifles do. With the magazine detached they are easily concealed.”

After Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives (ATF) agents arrived at the scene and confirmed that the firearm was indeed a pistol, rangers released Embody in accordance with the law without pressing charges. On OpenCarry.org, Embody has stated that he plans to openly carry the same handgun again at Bicentennial Mall, a Nashville State Park.

This issue has been a controversial one in The Volunteer State. Counties and municipalities have been permitted to opt out of a law allowing handguns in parks that they manage, and approximately 70 of them—fearing threats to public safety—have done so.

Another disturbing example of “open carry” occurred on January 2, when a crowd of over 300 people gathered at a busy intersection to protest the Obama Administration in Alamogordo, New Mexico. The rally, organized by the local Otero Tea Party Patriots and the Second Amendment Task Force, was a response to recent health care reform efforts, as well as a demonstration of Second Amendment “rights.”

Many of the attendees at the rally openly carried handguns and/or rifles (one woman even strapped a .32 caliber handgun to her dog’s back). New Mexico law allows residents to openly carry a firearm in most public places, as well as concealed weapons with a state-issued permit.

Several individuals who carried guns at the rally indicated they were doing so to exhibit “responsible gun ownership.” Others, however, admitted a darker purpose. One man stated that his handgun was a “very open threat” to the “socialist communists” in the Obama Administration. “The government fears the people, and a disarmed people are slaves,” he said. “Political power comes from the barrel of a gun ... They’re pushing us to our limits.” Jim Kizer, a veteran of the Korean War who carried at the rally, echoed this sentiment: “I’ve fought Communists all my life, and now our government is being taken over by them. That’s why I’m here.”

The rally kept law enforcement well occupied. Although the protest was not as large as anticipated, Alamogordo Department of Public Safety officers and the New Mexico State Police drove through “the intersection at no less than five-minute intervals during the two-hour event.” The constant patrolling of the protest distracted law enforcement from their regular duties, depriving the surrounding community of valuable resources.

Dan Woodruff, the founder of Alamogordo’s Second Amendment Task Force chapter, opined that the rally “put a positive light on gun ownership.” Others were not so convinced. Walt Rubel of the Las Cruses Sun-News questioned the benefit of “inviting every yahoo with a weapon in southern New Mexico to gather at the busiest intersection in Alamogordo and wave their firearms at the passing traffic.” Denise Lang, a counter-protester on the scene that day, offered, “I'm very much a pro-gun rights person. I come from a military family. My late husband was a gunsmith, [and] I think gun use is OK in an appropriate time and place. Wearing guns to a protest, to me, is extremely juvenile."

Beyond scaring their fellow citizens (“It’s a shock value thing,” admitted one handgun-toter), distracting law enforcement, and presenting potential threats to public safety (at political events that typically involve heated discussion), armed protesters present a more fundamental challenge to the integrity of our democracy. Their belief that the Second Amendment allows them to use force to bypass non-coercive, peaceful avenues of change undermines the First Amendment rights of all those who disagree with them. Perhaps “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” (as Chinese Communist leader Mao Tse-tung stated in 1938) in a totalitarian state, but not in a functioning democracy.

Ron Browne of Alamogordo, a bystander at the January 2 rally, grasped that armed protest leads to something far different than “freedom.” “I see this as the seeds of terrorism being born,” he said. “You have the guns. Eventually, you'll have the hate, then someone will actually take it one step further and try to hurt the president. Hate has to start somewhere and grow. This is it, right here. You're looking at it. If this keeps expanding, we're going to have a civil war.”

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