After more than a week of residual buzz from radio host Alex Jones' now famous meltdown during a CNN discussion of gun control, it is worth taking a deep breath and considering the spectacle's two big lessons, especially now that the White House is pushing Congress to debate firearm legislation.
First and foremost, it was surprising that anyone watching Jones was actually surprised. Yes, his references to Hitler and Stalin and his nationally televised promise of a violent revolution if "you try to take our firearms" was at once offensive and frightening. However, this kind of paranoid lunacy has been the lingua franca of the conservative world since Barry Goldwater first said, "Extremism in defense of liberty is no vice."
To know that's true particularly when it comes to guns, try paying attention to conservative radio, blogs and email newsletters this week in the aftermath of policy recommendations by Vice President Joe Biden's commission on firearm violence. If you do, you will inevitably be exposed to one or another attention-seeking Archie Bunker espousing the same deranged nonsense as Jones. Sure, that's disturbing - but it is no longer surprising, except perhaps to a national media and political elite that have no sense of just how corrosive the day-to-day discourse is in so much of the country.
Just as important, though, is the second lesson to come out of Jones' diatribe - the one about the gun discourse's underlying message.
Whether it is Jones, a firearms training company CEO promising to "start killing people" if gun regulations are tightened or an outgoing GOP congressman saying "we may have to shed blood (to) preserve our freedoms" -- the desire to intimidate is clear. Regardless of the particular demagogue, we are being repeatedly told that in a nation with the industrialized world's highest rate of gun homicide, those raising questions about our existing firearms laws risk being targeted as a traitors.
Urgent questions, though, must be asked. Some of them include:
How is a U.S. Constitution enshrining a baseline right to bear arms for a "well regulated militia" now seen by many as mandating that firearms be sold in completely unregulated fashion to any lunatic looking to stockpile a military-grade arsenal of assault weapons?
If, as gun proponents typically assert, the Second Amendment is absolute and we therefore cannot regulate, say, assault rifles, does the government have the right to regulate any other weapons? Should, for instance, citizens be able to own automatic machine guns? What about hand-held rocket launchers - is Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia right to suggest that they might be constitutionally protected? What about an individual right to own an armed flying drone?
Alternately, if we agree that some lines can be drawn, then doesn't today's gun control conversation represent a simple disagreement over where exactly to place those lines rather than a Stalinist assault on the basic right to own a gun?
If gun proponents are correct in arguing that a particular policy - for example, banning high-capacity bullet magazines - won't on its own solve the problem of mass shootings, does that automatically mean said policy is a bad idea?
Different people will have different answers, of course. A discussion of those differences, in fact, could be constructive, moving the political system to adopt the sensible gun policies that polls show the public supports.
But that exchange cannot occur - much less be productive - under ever-escalating threats of violent backlash. If, as White House spokesman Jay Carney recently warned, America continues watching "arguments over the Constitution’s Second Amendment violate the spirit of its First," then consensus will remain elusive - and gun violence will likely continue unabated.