The Tea Party's Gun Problem
A traditionally hot topic in election season, gun control has been conspicuously absent from the recent candidate debates. This would not be of note if the candidates themselves had no designs on changing the nation’s gun laws. Yet many of the Tea Party candidates, who portray themselves as focused on economic issues like excessive government bailouts and lower taxes, have a radical gun agenda. They seek an extreme roll back of the nation’s gun laws.
In state after state, Tea Party candidates like Rand Paul in Kentucky and Joe Miller in Alaska advocate for the adoption of radical “Firearms Freedom Acts.” These laws, which declare that the federal government has exceeded its constitutional authority by regulating gun sales, are intended to nullify the federal Brady Act, which requires background checks for most gun purchases. Eight states in the throes of Tea Party fervor, including Arizona, Utah, and South Dakota, have already enacted such laws—even though, as a federal court held last month, these laws are clearly unconstitutional.
The insurrectionist motive behind these laws is most obvious in Wyoming’s version of the Firearms Freedom Act. If a federal official tries to enforce federal gun laws in that state, he faces up to a year in jail.
Despite gussying up their arguments in the language of federalism and states’ rights, these laws are intended to eliminate gun control. Advocates have no intention of pushing state legislatures to require background checks. And the impact of these laws, if upheld, would be far broader than background checks. Federal bans on the possession of firearms by drug users and domestic batterers could also be undermined, as would basic gun dealer record-keeping laws used to solve gang crime.
Rand Paul showed his true colors with a campaign promise that, if elected, he “will fight all attempts at gun control in the U.S. Senate.” He didn’t say “all attempts at ineffective gun control” or “all attempts other than those well designed to keep criminals from having guns.” He was unambiguous: no gun control period.
Many of the Tea Party candidates claim to carry the mantle of Ronald Reagan’s policies. But their approach to gun control couldn’t be more different. Reagan vigorously endorsed the Brady Act, which was named after his press secretary, who was seriously injured by a bullet intended for Reagan.
Make no mistake: when it comes to guns, they’re talking about a revolution.
When Ronald Reagan was Governor of California, he supported a law banning people from carrying loaded weapons on public streets. “There’s no reason why on the street today a citizen should be carrying loaded weapons,” he told reporters. Although touting Reagan on his website, Joe Miller apparently believes that everyone should be carrying a loaded weapon on the streets today. In July, he asked his supporters to attend a parade with their guns openly displayed. Video of the rally shows rows of men with military-style rifles slung over their shoulders, handguns strapped to their belts, and Joe Miller for Senate signs in their hands.
Another key sign of the Tea Party candidates’ gun rights extremism is their endorsement by Gun Owners of America, the second most prominent gun rights organization behind the NRA. GOA founder Larry Pratt argues that the NRA doesn’t support gun rights strongly enough and GOA touts itself as the “only no-compromise gun lobby in Washington.” GOA has backed Tea Party candidates nationwide, like Christine O’Donnell and Sharron Angle—candidates shunned by the NRA and the Republican Party establishment.
Now a major player in the Tea Party, Pratt is also usually credited with starting the crazed patriot militia movement in the 1990s. Although the militias lost their luster after one of their supporters, Timothy McVeigh, bombed the federal building in Oklahoma City in 1995, they’re seeing a comeback under the Obama Administration—despite the fact that the President has shown no interest in new, restrictive gun laws. Obama has actually loosened rules on guns in national parks and on Amtrak, disappointing activists in his party and earning the President an “F” rating from the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. In the world of the Tea Party, however, facts don’t matter. They seem to know for certain that Obama is coming to get their guns.
In mainstream gun rights circles, firearms are valued primarily as a means of self-defense against criminals. For militias and Tea Party candidates, however, guns are for revolution. In Nevada, Sharron Angle gave voice to the militia movement’s views in January when, in a radio interview, she warned if elections don’t force officials like Harry Reid out of office, the people may be forced to turn to “Second Amendment remedies.”
Angle’s statements would be easier to dismiss as the ranting of a fringe candidate were she, well, fringe. Her views are shared by other Tea Partiers favored to win in November. Joe Miller, for instance, has been called “a friend of patriots” by Norm Olson, commander of the Alaska Citizens Militia. Ken Buck in Colorado refused to prosecute gun store owners who violated federal law when he was a U.S. Attorney, believing the federal government had no authority to regulate gun sales.
The Tea Party candidates want Americans to believe they’re only interested in economics or federalism. Make no mistake: when it comes to guns, they’re talking about a revolution.
Adam Winkler is a constitutional law professor at UCLA.