Outside the convention center in Phoenix where President Obama was discussing healthcare reform earlier this week, about a dozen protesters were openly displaying their guns -- including one man with an AR-15 rifle slung over his shoulder. Police monitoring the situation reported that no threats, physical or verbal, were made by or toward the armed demonstrators.
Big surprise. Who's going to argue about the merits of the public insurance option with a wing-nut carrying the semiautomatic, civilian version of the M-16 military assault weapon?
The Secret Service and local police have downplayed the disturbing appearances recently of armed protesters at Obama's public events, saying that, so far, the president's safety hasn't been threatened and that demonstrations have remained peaceful. What has been threatened, though, are the very free-speech rights these gun enthusiasts claim to be dedicated to upholding.
There is a chilling effect on public debate, to say the least, when one side is carrying weapons of mass murder. The armed protesters, including one skulking outside Obama's town hall healthcare discussion in New Hampshire last week with a sign reading "It is time to water the tree of liberty" and a handgun strapped to his leg, claim they're simply exercising their 1st Amendment speech rights and their 2nd Amendment gun rights. If Obama were discussing gun control at these events, this might actually make some sense, but what's the relationship between guns and healthcare reform? In reality, the protesters are merely seeking to intimidate their opponents and imply that if they don't get their way, armed resistance is an option. They are, in short, thugs.
The National Rifle Assn. has so far been silent on the issue. That's a bad move. Gun control as a political movement is all but dead in the United States, with Democrats -- including Obama -- so cowed by the gun lobby's past success at the polls that they have lost interest in stemming the supply of firearms. That could change overnight if a right-wing extremist at a healthcare town hall loses his head and starts exercising his trigger finger along with his right to bear arms. Those who cherish the 2nd Amendment should hope this frightening trend of armed protest ends before that happens.
Guns and political rallies, which are often emotionally charged events, are a volatile combination. It would be better for everybody involved if participants left their guns at home.