Defending the right to pack a pistol to the mall

Neil Macdonald on the growing reach and paranoia of America's gun lobby.

The thing I don't like about handguns is how nice they feel in your hand. The heft, the balance, the grip and the power of the things are seductive.

A pistol is like that gold ring in the Tolkien novels: Pick one up and you'll be suppressing a desire to use it.

I fired guns often when I was a kid. On the family farm, my dad had a pistol and rifles, and I expended many thousands of rounds during my short, unspectacular military career.

Other than that, I've only ever handled a loaded pistol once, at a very controlled shooting match for some charity or other in Ottawa.

The police running the event let me fool around with a Smith & Wesson revolver before it went back into their vault, forbidden to me and to most Canadians. Canada's gun laws have only grown stricter since.

Here in the U.S., though, if I want a gun, and I mean almost any kind of gun at all, I can just go buy one. Especially, in my case, if I simply drive cross the Potomac River into Virginia.

There, you can buy all the guns you want — no permit necessary — and you can parade them around openly in public, with no restrictions whatever.

It's pretty much the same deal in 27 other states, too. In this country, local legislators have been steadily loosening gun laws for years.

Ryan Johnston carries an unloaded rifle while attending a Second Amendment rally with Sheila Kolla in Sacramento, Calif., on Monday. They were demonstrating against a proposed state measure that would ban gun owners from openly carrying unloaded guns in public. (Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press)

But it is not just the states that are doing away with gun restrictions. Counterintuitively, President Barack Obama, nominally a liberal Democrat, has relaxed federal gun laws since taking office.

He has signed a law that allows people to carry guns in national parks as well as another allowing passengers to take their guns on Amtrak trains. He also issued an executive order guaranteeing civilian gun owners the right to buy spent military brass casings for reloading.

This follows a U.S. Supreme Court decision two years ago, which struck down the District of Columbia's outright prohibition on guns.

It was a huge decision, reaffirming the right to bear arms. These are good days, in other words, for armed Americans.

In a lather

Nonetheless, the U.S. gun lobby has worked itself into a paranoid lather about the current administration and Congress.

And I do not use the word paranoid lightly. To be sure, there are many Americans who regard their weapons as nothing more than a hobby, or a legitimate means of self-defence in violent times.

But a great many gun owners are utterly convinced that federal politicians secretly intend to confiscate their weaponry. As a result, gun sales have spiked since Obama moved into the White House.

Advertisements in newspapers advise people to "come buy your guns while you still can."

While across America, the "open-carry movement" has been staging events during which groups show up, armed, to patronize restaurants or coffee shops like Starbucks, which has famously decided not to get in the middle of this fight.

If it makes other customers nervous, well, tough. Go get your cappuccino somewhere else.


But for many of these pistol-packing activists, their objectives now appear to go far beyond gun laws.

Somewhat disturbingly, many of them have conflated their main issue — preservation of the Second Amendment rights to bear arms — with the anger over health-care reform, government borrowing, Wall Street bailouts, even Obama's environmental proposals.

Armed Americans attend a Second Amendment rally in Virginia on Monday, one of scores of similar rallies that day across the U.S. (Neil Macdonald/CBC)

At gun rallies such as the one on Washington's National Mall earlier this week (where protesters weren't armed) as well as a simultaneous gathering across the Potomac in Virginia (where protesters bristled with loaded handguns and assault rifles), Obama and the lawmakers on Capitol Hill were denounced as socialists, thieves and, of course, that old Brother John Birch reliable, Commies.

There was also considerable talk about God's will — God, it seems, being pretty pro-gun — and as the protesters showed off their firepower, they told reporters how federal politicians are hell-bent on destroying American democracy.

That's no exaggeration. They actually use that language.

Conspiracy road

"Pretty much everything that comes out of the Capitol right now is in my opinion anti-American," said Don Syfrett, who drove up from Georgia to stare balefully across the river at Washington, his AR-15 assault rifle slung over his back.

Up on stage, meanwhile, the speaker was driving further down Conspiracy Road, comparing the federal government to the al-Qaeda hijackers who seized control of Flight 93 on Sept. 11, 2001, the one that ultimately crashed into a Pennsylvania field

"What if we are all passengers on Flight 93?" he asked. "There is abuse of citizens' rights by an unjust authority."

"Let's roll," muttered someone nearby, echoing the last recorded words of the courageous passenger who famously fought back, leading the rush against the hijackers.

"Some will awaken from their slumber and are preparing," the speaker continued, raising his hand as one of the awoken. Other hands went up in the crowd.

How these people might be preparing went ominously unsaid. But the speaker went on to warn: "By merely uniting to talk and plan, citizens risk their own well-being, their own family and their own lives.

"I'll give you one more thing: Citizens realize that they themselves are the targets."

Memories of Waco

Wow. And here I thought this was a country in which representatives freely elected by the population make laws, which a president, freely elected by a healthy majority of voters, enforces, all under the supervision of a Supreme Court that is more or less evenly split between conservatives and liberals.

"If you believe that," said one fellow in fatigues, "you haven't lived in the United States very long."

Coincidentally, or perhaps not, Monday's rally was held on the anniversary of the fiery assault by federal firearms agents on the Branch Davidian fortress in Waco, Texas, 17 years ago.

Monday was also the anniversary of Timothy McVeigh's 1995 bombing of the federal building in Oklahoma, which claimed 168 lives.

"The federal government has been taking away, incrementally, year by year for the past 75 years, the rights we are entitled to," scowled Robert Johnston, packing a .357 magnum and a seven-mm magnum rifle.

"The first step will be defiance," he says. "Who knows where that will lead to?"

Meanwhile, up on stage, another speaker, a militant blogger who has urged people to throw bricks through the windows of members of Congress, was comparing gun owners to the heroic Hebrews who stared down from Masada at the Romans, and the few hundred Spartans who faced the invading Persians at Thermopylae.

"No!" he yelled. "NO!"

A tad unsettling, especially coming from someone packing a big sidearm.

As I've written in this space before, I'm quite fond of this country, but it's at moments like these that a foreigner realizes how different America is.

Particularly when you come from a country where the government really does want to take your guns away, and where most people think that's not such a bad idea.