Guns That Talk

Thursday, August 20th, 2009

It’s like truth or dare. And it’s legal.

Get your permit or whatever and you, too, can bring an assault rifle to the next presidential speech you attend. There’s nothing the police can do — amazing! If only the Democrats, back when George Bush was president, had known there was a safe, legal way to protest presidential policy and register discontent with the direction the country was headed. Can you imagine?

I ponder the phenomenon of gun speech — the amplified malevolence of the inarticulate — and hope, pray that it fizzles out quickly in its current manifestation: as a presence at town hall meetings on health care, at appearances by President Obama, at any random venue in which the nation’s future is being discussed. I fear, however, that this is going to catch on, and if it does, well . . . the line in the sand has been drawn. At what point did public sanity cease to be a value?

Consider what life was like, oh, let’s say five years ago. Here’s a slice of news from July 4, 2004:

Nicole and Jeff Rank were arrested in Charleston, W.Va. — handcuffed, hustled away, charged with trespassing — because they were wearing T-shirts that said “Love America, Hate Bush” on the grounds of the state capitol on the day George Bush was scheduled to make a speech there. The Charleston Gazette further reported that those who applied for tickets to hear Bush’s speech “were required to supply their names, addresses, birth dates, birthplaces and Social Security numbers.”

That was then: “Free speech zones” were the norm; protesters were routinely whisked out of sight at every Bush appearance, even though, you know, we have a First Amendment and all.

This is now: A dozen guys with guns gathered outside a convention center in Phoenix on Monday as President Obama spoke. At least two of them had assault rifles slung over their shoulders. “Phoenix police said the men carrying guns at Monday’s event did not need permits, as the state of Arizona has an ‘open carry’ law,” the U.K. Telegraph reported. “No crimes were committed, and no one was arrested.”

A few days earlier, in Portsmouth, N.H., a man with a pistol strapped to his leg, holding a sign that read “It is time to water the tree of liberty,” stood outside the local high school where Obama addressed a town hall meeting on health care. Another man was, in fact, arrested in Portsmouth that day because he had a loaded, unlicensed gun in his parked truck.

And, oh yeah, on Aug. 5, at a town hall meeting sponsored by Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, at a supermarket in Douglas, Ariz., a guy carrying a holstered pistol beneath his armpit was escorted off the premises by police when the weapon fell to the floor and bounced as he bent over. He wasn’t arrested.

This phenomenon has several layers of tangled complexity: The first concerns the motives of the gun toters. Why would they bring a lethal weapon to a public event? Surely not out of fear for their personal safety. (If you’re that scared, just stay home, OK?) They’re obviously making a point. The one I’m getting is: See this, punk? I’m not going to kill you, but I could. Yammer all you want, but just be aware that I’m the serious one here. (Those whose weapons were concealed may have been making the same point, but only for their own reassurance of self-worth.)

More troubling and puzzling is the official nonchalance with which these incidents are being met. Considering that, in the Bush era, security personnel at every level were quick to find laws that superseded free speech whenever the president showed his face in public, how can lethal firepower — more dangerous than a T-shirt — be tolerated in the vicinity of the president of the United States?

Is it that we fear words and ideas more than inarticulate rage? Is it that there’s a soft spot in the American heart for racist simmer? Do armed he-men exhibitionists require maternal coddling? Have we forgotten that four American presidents have been assassinated? Have we crossed the line that separates debate and disagreement from civil war?

Just asking. I don’t think we have, but I do think we could. Guns are, indeed, speech: Carry one and you can’t help but make an aggressive statement about what you believe and what you are capable of doing. A gun that goes off is something else again, however. It hardly matters whether the firing is accidental or intentional, because the consequences always have the potential to eclipse, tragically, the limited intentions — the “speech” — of the shooter.

My prayer is that we find the courage to grope for our common future together, and that the invisible infrastructure of public respect remains intact. This means we must check our weapons, but not our ideas, as we enter the debate.