Gun rights advocates showing up armed at political events has been one of the more disturbing images of the past few years. It changes the very nature of political debate to have one side of an argument carrying a lethal weapon, particularly when they are also carrying a sign with the Jefferson quote "the tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with blood of patriots and tyrants." You don't have to be a history professor to understand what that person is saying. Guns and politics are a combustible combination best avoided if at all possible.
But the epidemic of gun violence, particularly mass killings (a number of which have taken place as the campaign unfolded) has put the issue of gun rights front and center in this election. Democrats had been treading lightly on the issue of gun safety for many years but the rise in mass shootings and the recognition that guns are now taking more than 30,000 lives per year, including many children, has changed their view. And the blowback from the gun proliferation activists and the gun lobby has been furious and hysterical. They have greeted every attempt to enact common sense gun regulation with total obstruction, unwilling to give even an inch. Gun owners rush out to buy more weapons, particularly the semi-automatic types, whenever a bloodbath takes place. And throughout the nation, Republican office holders have responded by loosening the gun laws wherever they could, allowing them on campuses, churches, and even bars as an exercise of citizens' fundamental freedom.
The one notable exception has been the laws against carrying weapons in government buildings where they work, for which they have an interesting rationale. As a Republican legislator and gun rights proponent from South Dakota explained, “we have the most contentious issues being debated in public policy, affecting people in irate, angrily ways and affecting millions and millions of dollars. This is different than when you go work at the bar. This is different than you working at the bank.”
The central gun rights argument is that the Second Amendment is necessary for the citizenry to protect itself from government tyranny which is the reason why people showing up at rallies and political events armed has such a resonance. These people consider themselves to be patriots, fighting for freedom. But they are instead operating as thugs intimidating people who disagree with them, a fundamentally undemocratic act.
This brings us to Donald Trump and his shocking suggestion this week that Hillary Clinton wants to abolish the Second Amendment and if she were to be elected and allowed to appoint judges to the Supreme Court there would be nothing his followers could do about it "although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is." He was clearly saying that the gun patriots might take things into their own hands if Clinton were to win the election and frankly, he might be right. It has caused a firestorm and for good reason. Reports are that the Secret Service took the comments seriously enough that they had a little chat with the campaign about it.
It's not the first time a politician has made such a provocative remark. Recall that the late North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms famously said that President Bill Clinton was so unpopular with the military in his state that he'd better not show up without a bodyguard. But there is something very different about what Trump is doing.
From the time he announced his candidacy, there has been a violent subtext to Donald Trump's message. He's been ginning up fear of immigrants and Muslims, calling for torture, summary execution, extrajudicial killings and fetishizing "law and order." At his rallies he has commonly called for violence against protesters, lamented that "nobody wants to hurt anyone anymore" and said:
"Protesters, they realize there are no consequences to protesting anymore. There used to be consequences. There are none anymore. Our country has to toughen up folks. We have to toughen up. These people are bringing us down. They are bringing us down. These people are so bad for our country, you have no idea."
The crowds love it and cheer lustily whenever he makes these "un-PC" comments. But nothing gets his febrile mob excited as much as ad hominem attacks on his rival Hillary Clinton. From the early days of the campaign he has been building a case that Clinton is a criminal who "shouldn't be allowed to run for president". He says, "I will say this, Hillary Clinton has got to go to jail. Folks, honestly, she's guilty as hell."
These comments have always been met with feral shrieks of delight from his fans but at the GOP convention Trump supporters Alex Jones and Roger Stone introduced a new "Hillary for Prison" meme for mainstream consumption supplying mobile billboards and signs for the convention goers. And many of the headliners, including Rudy Giuliani, Chris Christie and General Michael Flynn stoked the crowd with more accusations of criminality leading to the now ubiquitous chant, "lock her up!" Delegates appeared dressed in orange jumpsuits and Clinton masks (a depressing routine that's being repeated in small towns in America.) Now Trump is accusing her of rigging the election to steal it from him and many Republicans believe him. These people will not accept that she is a legitimate winner.
This is the context in which Trump's very unfunny Second Amendment comment was made. In an era of excessive gun violence we have a paranoid gun culture that is (literally) loaded for bear and a political environment where gun rights and regulations are a top level issue And we have a Republican presidential nominee whose message encourages paranoia, violence and anger among his followers directed generally at various "others" and specifically toward his opponent who he characterizes as a criminal and an illegitimate tyrant who plans to abolish the Second Amendment. What could go wrong?