One of the hallmarks of the militia movement of the 1990s was the way it inspired violence: by essentially loosing the moorings of their followers from reality by promulgating a toxic brew of conspiracy theories, right-wing historical revisionism, and a bevy of false "facts" and claims against government officials and liberals generally. Chief among these, of course, was the belief that Bill Clinton and the New World Order were coming to take their guns away -- which, of course, he never did, though he did manage to pass an assault-weapons ban.
So when we point out the toxic effects of the revival of this kind of irresponsible rhetoric, it's because there's a real history behind it. It's not mere presupposition to point out that fearmongering that promotes palpably false and distorted claims often brings violent results; we already are too familiar with this causal relationship from experience.
The difference between the 1990s and now? When I was hearing talk like this then, it was coming out of the mouths of the Bo Gritzes and John Trochmanns -- the leaders and fanatical ideologues who drove the militia movement.
Now, it's coming out of the mouths of people with mainstream media programs: Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, Lou Dobbs, Michael Savage, Ann Coulter.
Media Matters has compiled a video documenting how rabidly the "Obama wants to grab our guns" meme has been broadcast to the True Believers of the American Right including Beck -- who reiterated his belief the Monday after the Pittsburgh shootings:
Later on his radio show, Beck said that Obama "will slowly but surely take away your gun or take away your ability to shoot a gun, carry a gun. He will make them more expensive; he'll tax them out of existence. He will because he has said he would. He will tax your gun or take your gun away one way or another." Beck is not alone -- since Obama's election, several conservative media figures have similarly warned that Obama would seize their guns or have suggested that a government effort to ban guns is likely.
Examples of conservative media figures advancing this claim include:
* On the November 7, 2008, broadcast of his nationally syndicated show, conservative radio host Lars Larson said of Obama: "I'm worried that when he starts naming people to the court, when that -- when that happens, and it's likely to during his administration, we're going to end up with justices who think they can break free of the constraints of the Constitution -- perhaps on the Second Amendment, one of my favorites." Larson later read a letter from a listener stating, "Lars, I've always said that if the gun-grabbers come to my front door and demand my guns due to some unconstitutional law being passed by the loony lefties in Washington, D.C., I'll have no choice but to hand them over. However, they will receive all of my ammunition first, all of it, just as fast as I can possibly give it to them."
* On December 4, 2008, after a caller stated that "gun manufacturers" would be able to raise prices during the economic crisis, Milwaukee radio host Mark Belling responded, "Well, OK. You're right about that. Everybody's buying guns before Obama comes in and outlaws them all."
* On the February 11 broadcast of ABC Radio Networks' The Sean Hannity Show, conservative columnist Ann Coulter said, "[B]y the way, the NRA also has information on how they [the Obama administration] are going to be expanding the concept of national parks to include, you know, highways running from Rhode Island to Virginia. National parks have gun bans imposed throughout." She then stated of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, "This bill is so much worse than earmarks and pork. This is a total government takeover, and Big Brother coming in and taking our guns and schools and doctors." Host Sean Hannity responded, in part: "All right. Let me -- Pat, let's -- lest those out there on the left think Ann Coulter is paranoid -- let's look at this. We've got the Democrats now want to politicize the census by moving it into Rahm -- Rahmbo [White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel], deadfish -- Emanuel's hands."
* On the April 7 edition of Salem Radio Network's The Mike Gallagher Show, host Mike Gallagher discussed an exchange between the Second Amendment Foundation's Alan Gottlieb and MSNBC anchor David Shuster on the April 6 edition of Hardball. Gallagher stated, "Now listen to the way Gottlieb does a great job in explaining logically why people are worried about what the Obama administration wants to do with our guns," then aired a clip in which Shuster asked Gottlieb, "Do you believe that the Obama administration and the Feds are coming to take away everybody's guns?" Gottlieb replied, "I believe that's what they would like to do. I don't think we're going to let them get away with it." Gallagher later stated, "[L]isten to the way Gottlieb leaves the liberal columnist stuttering and stammering, explaining very eloquently why so many of us are worried and scurrying to buy guns right now." He then aired a clip from the same Hardball segment in which New York Times columnist Charles Blow asked Gottlieb, "And we should confront that fear with guns?" and Gottlieb responded in part: "[I]f you think the government might take your rights away from you, you want to try and exercise them before that happens. It's a normal reaction."
Look, people: There is no factual basis for claiming that Obama "wants to take away our guns." There is a big difference between favoring reinstitution of an assault-weapons ban, or any other limited gun-control measure, and such sweeping attacks on gun ownership as the NRA and Glenn Beck have suggested are in the works.
It's a simple fact: Obama is focused on repairing the economy. This is why his broader initiatives so far have been about health care, education, energy, and immigration -- all of which have a direct bearing on the economy. He understands that gun control is a volatile and divisive issue, and pushing it at a time when we need some national unity is both unwise and counterproductive.
Sure, I think we all would like to have a serious conversation about guns somewhere down the road. But it can and will wait. Right now we need as many shoulders to the boulders as we can muster.
In other words: Why won't conservatives do the right thing, get over the silly stuff, and get serious about our national problems right now? All we're getting so far is tea parties and conspiracy theories.
And judging by their behavior since Obama's been elected, that's all we can expect to get from here on out -- that, and the inevitable spiral of violence.
Read The Eliminationists for an in-depth discussion of this.