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The Guns of Ferguson: When Tyranny Really Comes into Town, the NRA Goes into Hiding


I grew up around reclusive Cascadian hill folk who lived in fear of phantom black helicopters piloted by agents of the New World Order. Some of these guys, true to the stereotype of bunker-digging preppers, stockpiled outrageous quantities of firearms in preparation for what they believed was an inevitable confrontation with an authoritarian force on domestic soil. This was in the mid-1990s, long before CNN took Alex Jones seriously, before reality-TV crews transformed backwoods survivalists into petit celebrities, and before this particular brand of obsessive paranoia rose from the ashes of the Confederacy to seize the heart of the zeitgeist.

Still from Red Dawn, 1984.
Still from John Milius’s Red Dawn, 1984.

This past week, in Ferguson, MO, police phalanxes armed like counterinsurgency troops have been firing flash grenades and tear gas canisters at Americans on their own front lawns, shooting rubber bullets into crowds, locking up reporters, and restricting civilian airspace in a vain effort to control the narrative. One stunning Reuters photo shows an armored personnel carrier, flanked by riot police, rolling down what looks like a typical middle American boulevard. Atop this tank sits a marksman with his gun drawn, and behind him looms the golden arches of McDonald’s. The juxtaposition eerily recalls this iconic still from that Reaganite fever dream of my childhood, Red Dawn.

Ferguson is under government siege, a brutal echo of the localized martial law that followed the Boston Marathon bombing. Will Bunch at the Philadelphia Daily News calls what has been happening in Ferguson a “police coup.” The governor of Missouri, Jay Nixon, was until recently conspicuously aloof, along with President Obama.

As we watch these scenes, which seem to track closely with the paranoiac fantasists’ Hollywood spec script, who among us can’t help but marvel at another conspicuous absence: the well-regulated militia?

As Paul Waldman noted in the Washington Post, prominent libertarians have been quiet about events in Ferguson. The same could be said of the Tea Party, which inherited a great deal of rhetoric and a number of members from the ’90s militia movement I grew up with.

Some libertarians have responded, unpersuasively, that, yes, they are talking about Ferguson, albeit in very constricted terms. Libertarians are happy to talk about police militarization, but they’d prefer not to talk about institutional racism, because racism is a problem for which they have no answers, and when the subject comes up, their shoes tend to get messy.

But libertarians aren’t the half of it. The most telling silence in recent days has come from that timid, mouselike, ever-genteel lobbying organization, the National Rifle Association. The NRA is bigger than libertarianism, bigger than the Tea Party, and indeed in some respects is more effective than the Republican Party itself, given the loyalty the NRA commands among diehard followers and the deference granted to it by politicians, even some who support gun control.

It was only five years ago that NRA chief Wayne LaPierre delivered a characteristically demented performance at CPAC, the national conservative conference, endorsing the so-called “insurrectionist” interpretation of the Second Amendment. This interpretation maintains that the fundamental purpose of civilian gun ownership is to enable citizens to protect themselves from their own government. “Only the Second Amendment breathes life into liberty,” LaPierre said to an adoring audience. And then:

Freedom is nothing but dust in the wind until it’s guarded by the blue steel and dried powder of a free and armed people. . . . It’s not politically correct, but I don’t care if their butts pucker from here to the Potomac: Our founding fathers understood that the guys with the guns make the rules.

LaPierre also claimed that the trend of rising gun sales amid historic recession demonstrates this hunger for freedom, security, and empowerment:

Americans all over this country are saying, “I will fight for my family, I will fight for my neighborhood and I will fight for my freedom from tyranny, from crime and from any threat in any form.”

At this year’s CPAC conference, LaPierre revisited those themes. “The NRA proudly stands for the America we all want. Where we can speak and gather as we choose,” he said.

One would think, given his views on freedom of assembly and the importance of democratized violence, that LaPierre would be shouting through a megaphone for the besieged citizens of Ferguson to powder their muskets and cry liberty! (For the record, I think that is a terrible idea. More guns will only make an already horrifying situation more dangerous and deadly. My point is that the images from Ferguson, so strikingly reminiscent of cities under armed occupation elsewhere around the world, would seem to present an ideal opportunity for grandstanding by Second Amendment absolutists.)

But of course, as Bloomberg View editorialist Francis Wilkinson has also noted, the NRA has had nothing to say about what he calls the “‘jack-booted thugs’ terrorizing the populace” in St. Louis County. “I just can’t figure it out,” Wilkinson concludes sarcastically.

Keith Boykin at the Huffington Post puts a finer point on the NRA’s hypocrisy on this matter, asking, “Does the Second Amendment only apply to white people?”

Indeed, the NRA chief has implied as much in the past, in dog-whistle language. At the 2010 CPAC speech, LaPierre played a clip from one of his cable news appearances, in which he said the only real problem with widespread gun ownership was that lily-livered liberal prosecutors failed to prosecute “violent felons with guns, drug dealers with guns, [and] gang members with guns.”

Gang members and drug dealers—Gee, do you think he’s talking about the sort of meth-addled “freedom fighters” who shot two cops in Las Vegas after camping out with the white supremacists and Fox News camera crews at Cliven Bundy’s ranch?

Nah. Wrong kind of gang. LaPierre’s racial coding is less subtle than the infamous Willie Horton ad of the 1988 George H. W. Bush campaign.

Those who push guns as guarantors of liberty remain largely silent because the victims of state power in Ferguson are black—from Michael Brown, the unarmed black teenager shot by police last week as he walked to his grandmother’s house, to those protesting his killing.

Some protesters have been filmed throwing Molotov cocktails and the like, but, as a broad swath of media coverage has made clear, most violence is coming from the police. Gov. Nixon acknowledged as much by finally recalling the St. Louis County Police from duty in Ferguson today. Obama announced investigations by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Department of Justice.

Peaceful protesters have reportedly made a point to put their hands up in a “don’t shoot” gesture, as witnesses saw Brown do before his shooting.

Those protesters get it. They’ve had enough of guns.

Another thing I remember about the gun nuts back home: Race war was never far from their minds, and probably more discernible to them than the ludicrous prospect of a United Nations invasion. It’s clear now: those Second Civil War fantasies were all a projection.

It’s not the federal government but the local police department that has come to pacify the populace and nullify certain inconvenient Constitutional guarantees. It’s not internationalist coastal elites, but authority-worshipping middle Americans who are marching down the streets with rifles in hand. Friends, neighbors, patriots. “Good people,” LaPierre calls them, along with Rand Paul. When you see them coming, these good people bearing arms, don’t shoot—run.