Outside column: Pistol-packing camera hogs

Posted: Sunday, August 23, 2009

It is disturbing to see protesters show up with guns at President Obama's political events. Yet the practice is not illegal. It's also old enough to have whiskers on it.

In 1967, for example, about 30 members of a new organization called the Black Panther Party marched with rifles and shotguns into the California State Assembly in Sacramento to protest a proposed ban on carrying weapons in public. Yes, children, the '60s were not only about Woodstock.

Imagine how today's gun-rights conservatives would react if, say, a group of armed Panthers showed up at a rally for, say, President George W. Bush or Sen. John McCain, last year's Republican nominee.

Conservatives already are hopping mad that Attorney General Eric Holder's reluctance to prosecute a group that calls itself the New Black Panthers, for alleged voter intimidation at a Philadelphia polling place in November. The only weapon to be displayed in that episode, which is on YouTube, is a billy club.

For the record, I oppose political intimidation by Panthers, old and new, for the same reasons that I oppose those who use the conspicuous display of firearms to get their point across these days. It's reckless. Express your views, but leave your guns at home.

Outside Obama's speech to the Veterans of Foreign Wars in Phoenix, a reported dozen protesters flaunted guns. One, an African American who identified himself only as "Chris," strutted through the crowd with an AR-15 semi-automatic rifle slung over his shoulder. I mention his race only to acknowledge that, contrary to media-generated stereotypes, organized gun lovers aren't all conservative white guys.

Parading with pistols and the like is legal under Arizona law, Chris pointed out, and the rest of us should "get kind of conditioned to it." Sure, he's a patriotic American, he'll tell you, yet he scoffs with remarkable ease at the sensibilities of a majority that doesn't see things his way.

Chris was not alone. He was invited by a friend, Ernest Hancock, a right-wing Internet radio host who packed a holstered handgun at the event. He admitted on MSNBC that he was milking the protests as a publicity stunt. Congratulations. It worked.

A week earlier William Kostric, with handgun strapped to his leg, famously held up a sign outside Obama's health-care town hall in Portsmouth, N.H. The sign read, "It's time to water the tree of liberty." That's a reference to Thomas Jefferson's declaration that the tree "must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants." That was also a favorite slogan of Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber. Kostric says he meant nothing intimidating, but I can take a hint.

Like the Panthers and the self-styled Arizona patriots, Chris got his publicity. Somebody even started a "William Kostric for Congress" Facebook page. That's the joy of the Internet age. No matter how far off the radar your views may be, you can find love on the Web.

What do guns have to do with Obama's proposed health-care overhaul? All three of the above men said they were freedom-loving, tiny-government libertarians who righteously oppose the majority imposing its will by "stealing" or "confiscating" the earnings of the minority, whether for health care or anything else. They're entitled to their opinion. Yet they sound mightily reluctant in their zest for minority rights, to concede that if democracy is going to work, the majority rules.

To his credit, Obama has refused to take the bait of such provocateurs. When asked, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs would only acknowledge that people are entitled to openly carry weapons outside presidential events if state and local laws allow it, and "(t)hose laws don't change when the president comes to your state or locality."

That should help ease widespread fears among gun owners that the nation's new liberal president is out to take their guns, although it won't soothe the extremists. Sales of guns and ammos surged after Obama's election, according to news reports, as they did in Bill Clinton's presidential years. Democrats, it appears, are good for gun and ammo sales. Militia recruitment, too.

That's why some concerned members of Congress have recommended new steps such as widening the security perimeter around the president at public events. But the Secret Service already has the power to do that. There's not much new that's going to have much of an impact on those who pack iron for publicity, except some good old-fashioned ridicule and condemnation.

This can best be meted out by responsible gun owners, whether in the National Rifle Association or elsewhere, who have enough sense to see that pistol-packing camera hogs don't really help the cause of gun rights.

• E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@tribune.com.



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