As Barack Obama last week amassed his political forces in favor of the first Congressional gun control package in nearly two decades, gun owners too raced into action, quickly organizing and setting into motion national “Guns Across America” rallies on Saturday.
Thousands of Americans indicated they planned to participate in rallies Saturday in nearly every US state capital to wave “Don’t tread on me” flags and, they hoped, cement a grassroots gun rights coalition while providing a visual antidote to what they fear is a liberal perception of “gun crazies” in the flyover states.
To that end, some organizers, at least, urged protesters to leave their guns at home, even in states where open carry is allowed.
Former police officer Don Dobyns is organizing a Guns Across America event in Denver, and told the Associated Press that he’s expecting at least 1,500 people, but likely more. “Now I don’t have a clue [how many people will attend] because this has exploded,” he told the wire service.
To be sure, the gun control debate sparked by the killing of 26 children and school staff inNewtown, Conn., on Dec. 14 has largely been framed by the battle between entrenched lobbying groups, such as the Brady Center and the National Rifle Association.
But key to those efforts, political experts say, is grassroots support on both sides. Obama’s coalition is trying to tap into the fact that, according to polls, support for gun control jumped nearly 20 percent in the wake of the Newtown massacre, where a majority of Americans now support measures such as an assault wapons ban and expanded background checks.
Gun rights activists, however, say they have the momentum on their side, pointing to increased NRA memberships since the December massacre, and vowed to demonstrate that momentum on Saturday.
Gun control advocates in the media “have created this echo chamber where they’re convinced they’ve succeeded in exploiting this tragedy and produced a national change in public opinion,” says Michael Hammond, the legislative consultant for Gun Owners of America in Springfield, Va.“But we don’t see it.”
“I think the question of whether we have a reinvigorated gun control movement will depend on whether [gun control advocates, including Obama] can come out of this with a negotiated victory,” adds Mr. Hammond. “That’s why it’s so incredibly important that Republicans stand firm. This is a seminal battle perhaps of our times.”
Similar in tone to the tea party movement that sprung up in protest against government bailouts in 2009, the Guns Across America movement shows that the push for more gun control in the wake of the Newtown has forced gun owners into the streets.
The impact of the grassroots game could be critical, says Hammond, potentially laying the groundwork for electoral realities in 2014 as both sides of the gun debate seek support from centrist, gun-friendly American voters.
“Who’s going to show up [on Saturday] are grandmothers, grocery store clerks, accountants, neighbors who you might not even know had guns, or cared about the Second Amendment,” says Larry Ward, the organizer of a simultaneous Gun Appreciation Day event, which urges gun owners to patronize gun shops and shooting ranges on Saturday.
“No one is going to be afraid of these people, they’re going to clean up and go home and lock their guns away and go about their business. But hopefully they will leave a statement for lawmakers saying, ‘You’re messing with the wrong crowd, politically.’ “
Constitutional law professors say now is, in fact, the time for voters and activists on both sides to get into the debate.
“I would say even if you’re bound and determined to keep your guns and resist any infringements on rights to do so, nothing bad has happened yet, and there are plenty of opportunities to push back through the political process,” says Kermit Roosevelt, a constitutional law professor at theUniversity of Pennsylvania, in Philadelphia.
On Facebook, organizers and protesters hotly debated whether they should come armed to the rallies or not. The specter of heavy media coverage also hung over the protests, especially given how some tea party protests, and especially edgy and sometimes inappropriate signs, were projected by national media.
A Guns Across America organizer in Georgia, Michael Curran, told supporters on Facebook ahead of the event that media optics are critical to whether the campaign fails or succeeds.
“For the sake of public image, I would ask that you do not open carry at this particular event,” Mr. Curran wrote on Facebook. “While we DO have that right, the media and the liberal agenda will be seeking every avenue they can to discredit us and tarnish our image. If you show up in camouflage overalls with an Armalite strapped to your back, that will be media gold to the left-wing community [which will] portray us as radical extremists.”
For his part, President Obama used his weekly address on Saturday to urge Congress to pass bans on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines, measures he has called “common sense” and not an attempt to confiscate any parts of America’s 300-million strong personal arms arsenal.
“Like most Americans, I believe the Second Amendment guarantees an individual right to bear arms,” Obama said. “We have a strong tradition of gun ownership in this country, and the vast majority of gun owners act responsibly. But I also believe most gun owners agree that we can respect the Second Amendment while keeping an irresponsible, law-breaking few from causing harm on a massive scale. That’s what these reforms are designed to do.”