Monthly Archives: June 2014

Wolves Run in Packs

On Sunday, a pair of Las Vegas police officers was shot to death while eating lunch at a local CiCi’s Pizza. The two shooters then proceeded to a nearby Walmart, where they murdered another person before killing themselves in an apparent suicide pact.

Many details are still sketchy – there are reports, for example, that the shooters exchanged gunfire with a civilian who was carrying a concealed weapon – but one thing is clear even from the early coverage: this was an act of political violence. After stripping the murdered cops of their weapons, the shooters draped their bodies in a Gadsden flag. They reportedly shouted “This is a revolution!” during their rampage; authorities are investigating anti-government literature and paraphernalia including swastikas found in their home.

Early reporting from the Las Vegas Review Journal also indicates that the attackers bragged about participating in the recent standoff between Cliven Bundy and Bureau of Land Management representatives in Bunkerville, Nevada. It’s unclear in what capacity they participated and under what circumstances they left; one allegedly told a neighbor that he had been “kicked off.” When reached for comment, Bundy’s wife Carol told the Review Journal: “I have not seen or heard anything from the militia and others who have came to our ranch that would, in any way, make me think they had an intent to kill or harm anyone.”

It’s easy to call out the ludicrousness of Carol Bundy’s statement by observing that, during the standoff, militia pointed their weapons at Federal Agents, blockaded an interstate, set up armed checkpoints, and announced that they were “willing to do whatever it takes,” which included dying in a gunfight with the Feds. The manifestly threatening dimensions of what happened at Bunkerville are clear, and were clear from the start.

It’s also not hard to imagine what the response to this most recent incident will be, particularly on the right. The undeniable political dimensions of the killers’ terrorism will be discounted – it will become a singular incident, the isolated act of a pair of lone wolves. Then their personalities will come under the microscope, and their connections to others downplayed: They were just a pair of crazy tweakers, totally deluded. And finally we’ll throw our hands up in the air and lament the senselessness, the incoherence of it all, consigning Sunday’s killings to the remote abstraction of an act of nature. What a tragedy. Nothing to see here; move along.

Tim McVeigh in Waco, TX, 1993

Tim McVeigh in Waco, TX, 1993

Over twenty years ago, another standoff between a group of zealots and Federal authorities drew a similar gaggle of militia-minded supporters. They stuck to the sidelines, didn’t draw their weapons on anyone, didn’t kill any cops. But they were there, they watched, they waited, and they planned. You’ve probably heard of this standoff, and of one of the folks who watched from the sidelines. It was at Waco, Texas, and that person was named Timothy McVeigh. He even gave an interview to a reporter while he was there.

“The government is afraid of the guns people have because they have to have control of the people at all times. Once you take away the guns, you can do anything to the people. You give them an inch and they take a mile. I believe we are slowly turning into a socialist government…The government is continually growing bigger and more powerful, and the people need to prepare to defend themselves against government control.” McVeigh went on to quote “the U.S. Constitution and said U.S. armed forces should not be used against civilians, yet they were used against Koresh and his followers…[he said that] the Koresh standoff is only the beginning and that people should watch the government’s role and heed any warning signs.”

Sound familiar?

Back in 2009, when the Department of Homeland Security issued a report on domestic terrorism threats from right-wing extremists, the blowback was intense. John Boehner labeled the report “outrageous” and “offensive,” and demanded “an explanation for why [Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano] has abandoned using the term ‘terrorist’ to describe those, such as al Qaeda, who are plotting overseas to kill innocent Americans, while her own Department is using the same term to describe American citizens who disagree with the direction Washington Democrats are taking our nation.” In response to that backlash, the DHS withdrew the report, and Napolitano was forced to apologize.

Five years later, folks at the Bundy ranch proudly wore outfits identifying themselves as “Domestic Terrorists.” And now two people who were there have committed an act of political violence in a Las Vegas strip mall.

Sure, the affair in Bunkerville may have attracted a lot of different people, many of whom Bundy and some of his erstwhile high-profile supporters might not like to be associated with – especially since some of the latter have now distanced themselves from Bundy himself. Maybe even some of those people were downright crazy, and got kicked off (although watching this and this, it’s clear that bar would have to be set pretty high.) But let’s not kid ourselves. This wasn’t an isolated incident. Wolves roam in packs.

Update: 6/9, 1PM The shooters have been identified as Jerad and Amanda Miller. Jerad Miller’s Facebook page is still up. It includes the following posts:

Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 1.35.31 PM

And:

Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 1.38.46 PMAnd, finally, on Saturday:

Screen Shot 2014-06-09 at 1.38.59 PM

 

Walking Backwards on a Slippery Slope

Last Friday, at the close of a month full of gun-related news, including a mass shooting in California and a series of high-profile Open Carry protests in the Southwest, the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action issued a truly remarkable statement. Entitled “Good Citizens and Good Neighbors: The Gun Owners’ Role,” this press release struck a rare note not only by addressing gun owners directly, as opposed to legislators or the media, but also by reprimanding some of them:

“As gun owners, whether or not our decisions are dictated by the law, we are still accountable for them. And we owe it to each other to act as checks on bad behavior before the legal system steps in and does it for us.  If we exercise poor judgment, our decisions will have consequences… Let’s take just a couple of examples.  In each case, just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be done.  In each case, gun owners would do well to consider the effect their behavior has on others, whether fellow gun owners or not. “

This document was remarkable not only in its own right, but because of its aftermath, which is breaking news. But before I get to that, it’s worth looking very closely at what the NRA originally had to say. The first example the NRA chose was the escalating brouhaha over the availability of so-called “Smart Guns.” The issue of Smart Guns is extremely complicated, both in terms of the technological specifics and the relevant legislative landscape, and it’s something I will write about in more detail another day. Suffice it to say for the moment that the advent of guns with increased safety features, like the Armatix iP1, which only fires when held by a user who is wearing an RFID-enabled wristwatch, has provoked a backlash among certain gun enthusiasts – to the point that the weapon’s designer has received death threats and retailers were driven to withdraw it from their shelves. The reason for this backlash is that certain gun enthusiasts worry that once smart guns become available, all non-smart guns will be outlawed. It’s a fear that has intensified in no small part due to poorly conceived legislation in New Jersey, passed in 2002, that would mandate all firearms merchants to carry only smart guns once they became generally available. Although the legislator who sponsored that particular bill has indicated that she is willing to repeal it, the NRA has nonetheless steadfastly opposed the sale of any such smart guns, citing its concerns with laws like New Jersey’s. Last week’s press release doubled down on that opposition: “The lesson with ‘smart’ guns is that you can’t always evaluate the long-term consequences of a new ‘innovation’ in firearm technology or regulation at a glance… Before you embrace whatever schemes are being pushed by the self-described ‘gun safety advocates’ who’ve never met a ban or restriction on guns or ammunition they didn’t like, acquaint yourself with the facts.”

The NRA press release then turned to its second example of how “just because something can be done doesn’t mean it should be”: the Open Carry of long guns in public spaces, which has entered the public eye in the wake of a series of high-profile Open Carry protests in Texas. With a caveat of praise for the “robust gun culture” of the Lone Star State, the NRA’s presser observed that a “small number [of Texans] have recently crossed the line from enthusiasm to downright foolishness.”

“Now we love AR-15s and AKs as much as anybody, and we know that these sorts of semiautomatic carbines are among the most popular, fastest selling firearms in America today.  Texas, independent-minded and liberty-loving place that it is, doesn’t ban the carrying of loaded long guns in public, nor does it require a permit for this activity.  Yet some so-called firearm advocates seem determined to change this…While unlicensed open carry of long guns is also typically legal in most places, it is a rare sight to see someone sidle up next to you in line for lunch with a 7.62 rifle slung across his chest, much less a whole gaggle of folks descending on the same public venue with similar arms. “

Why are these “firearm advocates” – like those “self-described ‘gun safety’ advocates’ – only “so-called”? It’s because, as the NRA sees it, their guntrolling “hijinx” threaten to ultimately work against gun rights – a suspicion that’s clearly justified given that several businesses have moved to ban Open Carry on their premises. With uncharacteristic candor, the NRA press release explicitly condemned this behavior:

 “Let’s not mince words, not only is it rare, it’s downright weird and certainly not a practical way to go normally about your business while being prepared to defend yourself. To those who are not acquainted with the dubious practice of using public displays of firearms as a means to draw attention to oneself or one’s cause, it can be downright scary. It makes folks who might normally be perfectly open-minded about firearms feel uncomfortable and question the motives of pro-gun advocates…Using guns merely to draw attention to yourself in public not only defies common sense, it shows a lack of consideration and manners.”

Here’s why all this is particularly interesting. As an essentially conservative organization, at least in its current incarnation, the NRA can’t call for an outright ban on anything or demand restriction on its member’s behaviors; it can only enjoin “responsibility” and “neighborliness.” In this sense, the NRA’s statement parlayed the values associated with classic American conservativism at its best: self-restraint and persuasion instead of compulsion, community consciousness and responsibility instead of regulation.

But in another sense, that press release leveraged a more contemporary feature of American conservativism – a sense that citizens’ rights are embattled, teetering on a slippery slope towards destruction. In both cases – with Smart Guns and Open Carry – the NRA statement appealed to a consequentialist logic: doing X might likely lead, someday, somehow, to Y. Allowing for the sale of Smart Guns might lead, down the line, to the outlawing of all other guns. Brazen Open Carry of long guns in fast food restaurants might lead, down the line, to pro-gun control backlash among otherwise undecided voters. However realistic each specific scenario might be, the same slippery-slope logic underwrites both.

But the problem is that the NRA doesn’t have a monopoly on that kind of logic. Open Carry advocates themselves argue that not bearing their weapons encourages an “anti-gun” atmosphere that would inevitably result in yet further limitation of their rights. As Open Carry.Org puts it: “A Right Unexercised is a Right Lost.” Just because you can do this doesn’t mean you should, said the NRA to the Open Carry movement. Because we can, we have to, was the response.

The tragic irony here, of course, is that the NRA has been relying on slippery-slope logic for decades, not least by constantly hyping fears of a (highly unlikely) renewed Assault Weapons Ban to sell guns and by invoking the specter of a (pretty much impossible) government confiscation of all guns to drive up membership. The NRA has been pushing the slippery slope angle for years, cultivating extremist gun owners for the worst case scenario. But now suddenly the NRA finds itself beholden to those extremists, and the target of their paranoid fears. Because when some Open Carry activists cut up their NRA membership cards and accused the NRA of “losing its relevance” and siding “with the gun control extremists and their lapdog media,” it was only a matter of time before Chris Cox, Executive Director at the Institute for Legislative Action, was obliged to perform a backtracking mea culpa: “Now, the truth is, an alert went out that referred to this type of behavior as weird, or somehow not normal. And that was a mistake. It shouldn’t have happened. I’ve had a discussion with the staffer who wrote that piece, and expressed his personal opinion. Our job is not to criticize the lawful behavior of fellow gun owners.”

Listening to Cox flail uncomfortably and pin blame on some unfortunate staffer, it was hard not to recall the opening words of Friday’s press release, about people taking responsibility for the consequences of our actions, good and bad. “In ways small and large,” that release ran, “We are all in this together, and we all have a role to play in preserving our cherished freedoms for ourselves and future generations.” What does that future hold if preserving those freedoms now no longer carries even the minimum obligation to enjoin responsibility and restraint in exercising them?