GUN DEBATE - As President Obama travels the country to promote his ideas about health care reform, he has been met with hearty debate. But he's also been met with something unexpected, gun-toting citizens who seem to be making a statement about more than just health policy.
Are these citizens merely expressing their second amendment rights or do they present a dangerous provocation?
We asked two experts for their take.
Opinion contributed by Paul Helmke, President of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.
Click here for Larry Pratt's opposing view.
WASHINGTON (OPINION) Too often in our country we've seen the tragic and near-tragic consequences of people bringing loaded firearms to political events and presidential appearances.
March 30, 1981 was one of those occasions. On that day, a mentally disturbed gunman, armed with a cheap .22-caliber revolver, fired six shots at President Ronald Reagan as he was leaving a Washington D.C. hotel.
Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy, District of Columbia police officer Thomas Delahanty, President Reagan, and Jim Brady - President Reagan's Press Secretary - were all wounded by that gunfire. Both Jim and his wife Sarah still live with the injuries Jim suffered that day, and since then have fought for sensible gun laws to prevent other families from having to endure the pain they have endured.
America appropriately encourages lively debate over the issues that affect us. True debate, however, requires that we respect each other's opinions and that we not intimidate or threaten our opponents into silence. Doing so debases our traditions and weakens our ability to overcome the challenges that we should all face together.
This month, we have seen many people take their loaded firearms - including military-style assault rifles - to "town hall" forums, sidewalk protests and even presidential events from New Hampshire to Arizona. While our weak national and state gun laws may allow such dangerous behavior, having the "right" to do something does not necessarily make it "responsible." Carrying a loaded gun to a heated debate not only burdens law enforcement and endangers all in attendance, it intimidates and bullies those who disagree with the gun carrier.
One man brought an AR-15 military-style assault rifle to a protest outside President Obama's speech in Phoenix on Monday, and said, "We will forcefully resist people imposing their will on us through the strength of the majority with a vote." We protect minority views in this country, but that does not include the right to "forcefully resist." A personal crusade against America's democratic system with a firearm in hand is exactly the mentality of insurrectionists like Timothy McVeigh, who blew up the Murrah Building in Oklahoma City 14 years ago.
Individuals carrying loaded weapons to presidential events require constant attention from Secret Service and police officers, which can only spread their protective resources even thinner. The possibility that weapons carried by gun activists might be accidentally mishandled or even taken by someone else increases the risks of death or serious injury not only to the President, but to all nearby.
As Mayor of Fort Wayne, Indiana for 12 years and as a candidate for office, I've been to a lot of contentious public meetings - even some where people were carrying guns. I've seen first-hand how heated those events can be and how those who bring their guns have the potential to stifle debate as well as put others at risk of injury.
Earlier this year, the National Rifle Association's Executive Vice-President, Wayne LaPierre, declared that "the guys with the guns make the rules." Now we see armed protesters taking his words to heart. The leaders of the NRA and other "gun rights" groups need to send a clear message to their members and all gun owners that taking loaded weapons to political forums, especially where the President of the United States is in attendance, endangers all involved, distracts law enforcement, and stifles debate. They need to call on gun owners to leave their guns at home before they make their voices heard.
Folks have a right to shoot off their mouth. If we use some common sense, we can make sure that's where the shooting stops.
Click here for Larry Pratt's opposing view.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Paul Helmke has served as President of the Brady Campaign/Center to Prevent Gun Violence, the nation's largest national, non-partisan, grassroots organization leading the fight to prevent gun violence, since mid-July 2006. Prior to this, Helmke was a lawyer in Fort Wayne, Indiana, where he served as mayor from 1988-2000.