Right-wingers have depicted health care reform as a front for various dastardly schemes, which include everything from killing off grannies and unborn babies to ushering in a socialist state. Now, one radical gun rights group sees yet another hidden agenda behind the reform effort: The health care legislation, they say, threatens their right to bear arms.
The accusation comes from Gun Owners of America, a 300,000-member group that proudly advertises itself with a quotation from Ron Paul: “The only no-compromise gun lobby in Washington.” The GOA has been described as “eight lanes to the right” of the NRA, which it tends to dismiss as a pack of wussy sell-outs; and the group’s longtime leader, Larry Pratt, was booted from Pat Buchanan’s inner circle for having ties to the militia movement and hobnobbing with white nationalists.
Yet, like the Tea Partiers who draw Republican Congressional leaders to their racially tinged protests against “National Socialist Health Care,” the Gun Owners of America could well influence the reform debate in ways that belie their extremist status. GOA has thrown itself wholeheartedly into the battle for the soul of the GOP, pledging to help oust “RINOs” and other insufficiently trigger-happy Republicans in the 2010 primaries. And last week the Washington Post reported that the GOA’s campaign against health care reform could also “cause political indigestion for Democrats from conservative states,” and have some influence on their final votes.
In fact, no version of the reform legislation even mentions firearms. But that hasn’t stopped the Virginia-based group from raising the alarm about what it calls the “anti-gun ObamaCare bill.” In its most recent alerts, the GOA has fixed on the proposal for a nationwide system of electronic health care records, which, it says, “will most likely dump your gun-related health data into a government database....This includes any firearms-related information your doctor has gleaned or any determination of post traumatic stress disorder or something similar, that can preclude you from owning firearms.”
In other words, better record-keeping and information-sharing might lead some people to be denied gun permits on the basis of serious mental illness. Presumably, this could include people like Cho Seung-Hui, the student who gunned down 32 others before killing himself in the 2007 Viriginia Tech massacre. Less than two years before the shooting, a state court order had directed that Cho be taken into custody for a psychiatric evaluation, declaring the young man mentally ill and “an imminent danger to himself or others.” (He was later ordered into outpatient treatment and released.) But Virginia failed to supply this information to the FBI-monitored National Instant Criminal Background Check System, so Cho was able to purchase two semi-automatic pistols in local gun stores, along with two ten-round magazines of ammo on eBay. After the massacre, even George W. Bush willingly signed a new gun control bill—the first in 13 years. But Gun Owners of America doesn’t think insanity is necessarily incompatible with gun ownership. (The group also has a novel approach to such massacres: Put more guns in schools.)
A GOA alert earlier this fall was titled “ObamaCare Could be Used to Ban Guns in Home Self-Defense.” Their premise, as described by PolitiFact, is that “in a bid to control spiraling health care costs, the administration will target people who have ‘excessively dangerous’ behaviors that officials believe raise the cost of health care.” The legislation’s “special ‘wellness and prevention’ programs” the GOA warns, “would allow the government to offer lower premiums to employers who bribe their employees to live healthier lifestyles — and nothing within the bill would prohibit rabidly anti-gun HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius from decreeing that ‘no guns’ is somehow healthier.” (Sibelius earned GOA’s unending wrath when she vetoed concealed-carry gun legislation as governor of Kansas.) “It is even possible that the Obama-prescribed policy could preclude [insurance] reimbursement of any kind in a household which keeps a loaded firearm for self-defense.”
Such dire prognostications are quickly spreading far beyond the GOA’s membership. The Washington Examiner quoted Dave Kopel, research director of the libertarian Independence Institute of Colorado, who said, “The more you socialize costs, the more you empower the argument that the government has the authority to control private behavior.” Kopel continued, “If [the Department of Health and Human Services] can write regulations for lower premiums for healthy habits in general...”Then I don’t see anything in the bill that stops HHS from saying people get higher premiums for unhealthy habits such as owning a gun or a handgun.”
With Republicans sticking to party-line votes against health care reform, the GOA is going after what it sees as vulnerable Democrats. After the Senate cloture vote, GOA attacked Democrats from Conservative states who “were bribed into selling out the American people because Harry Reid ordered them to do so,” and declared: “Can you spell R-E-C-A-L-L? GOA is looking into which states are the best targets for recalls–and you can be sure that we will be pursuing this option aggressively, exposing the Senators who sold their vote.” It provided a model letter for its members to send, which begins: “Just so you know, I will not forget how you voted on Saturday, November 21 when you threw your support in favor of anti-gun socialized health care.”
But if Democrats like Arkansas’s Blanche Lincoln or Louisiana’s Mary Landrieu are swayed by the likes of the GOA, it will mark a new low in the party’s capitulation not only to conservatives, but to extremists of a truly hateful variety. While his views on some subjects may not represent all GOA’s members, Larry Pratt, who has been the group’s executive director for 26 years, has been up to his neck in far-right extremist activity for several decades—an outrider among the pistol-packing white power crowd, and a fellow traveler and inspiration to the militias that sprung up in the 1990s.
Leonard Zeskind, the expert on white nationalist movements, has described Pratt as having “one foot in the political mainstream and the other in the fringe.” Pratt comes out of Fairfax, Virginia, and served two terms in the state legislature in the 1980s, arguing an anti-abortion, anti-tax line. But he made national headlines in 1996, while he was co-chair of Pat Buchanan’s presidential campaign, after news surfaced on his attendance at a meeting of the racialist far right in Estes Park, Colorado, in 1992. As described by Zeskind, in an article for Rolling Stone:
The three-day strategy session was organized by Pete Peters...who pastors to members of a fringe religious group called [Christian] Identity. Identity doctrine contends that Northern Europeans are racial descendants of the biblical Hebrews; that our government is in the hands of satanic Jews; and that black people were created before Adam and are therefore less than human. Identity believers have begun to stockpile weapons, food and supplies in preparation for Armageddon, which they think will be a race war in the United States.
Among the speakers were Aryan Nations leader Richard Butler and legendary Klansman Louis Beam. And as Zeskind writes, “Although many of the participants had met before, this gathering was different. This meeting marked the birth of the modern militia movement that would tie well-armed radicals to gun advocates in a right-wing national network.” Beam laid out his theory for carrying forward a white revolution against the Zionist Occupied Government by means of a “leaderless resistence” cell strategy. Instead of mass organizations with known chains of command, Beam said, right wing revolutionaries should go underground in secret cells, unknown and unrelated to one another. The cells could number a few or many members, or individuals could act on their own as so-called Phineas Priests. It’s not a stretch to say that this meeting, and the ideas and energy that came from it, may have helped inspire not only the modern Militia Movement, but also crimes ranging from the murders of abortion providers to the Oklahoma City bombing.
And in the midst of it all was Larry Pratt. Lenny Zeskind describes the GOA leader’s appearance at the meeting:
Pratt stood at the podium and peered out from behind his glasses. He confessed to the crowd of gun lovers that he wasn’t a particularly good shot or an enthusiastic hunter. “I bought my first gun in 1968, during the riots in Washington, D.C.” that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., he said. At the time all he could buy was a shotgun. “If they’d had that assault rifle, so-called, for sale, and I’d seen that big old magazine there at the time, that’s exactly what I would have bought.”
Pratt, who had studied the evolution of death squads in places like Guatemala and the Philippines and glorified these vigilante groups, joined Beam in providing inspiration for a revived militia movement. He argued the importance of the old-style posse, organized in militias. In his book Blood and Politics, Zeskind quotes from Pratt’s writing: “When the government no longer fears the people, atrocities become possible....Long live the militia! Long live freedom! Long live a government that fears the people.”
Pratt’s history, in general, exemplifies the blurred boundaries between the “mainstream” and the “fringe”—the right and the extremist (and usually racist) far right. In addition to GOA, Pratt set up the Committee to Protect the Family Foundation, which attacked gays and demanded a quarantine for anyone with AIDS. “Our judges coddle criminals instead of caring for the victims of crime. They’ve chased God out of our schools, defended abortions...and now they are trying to infect us with strange and horrible diseases.” He was a keen backer of Randall Terry and Operation Rescue, and when the government shutdown OR’s finances, Pratt’s Protect the Family Foundation raised money to help pay off the groups debts and fines. And Pratt is also a founder of the anti-immigrant groups U.S. Border Patrol and English First, and a contributing editor to a periodical of the anti-Semitic United Sovereigns of America.
Pratt has said that he is not a racist or a violent revolutionary, though his record suggests otherwise. And the apparent mainstream influence of a radical group like GOA seems especially sinister at this historical moment. We live at a time when the election of the first black president has sparked an explosion in gun sales, and when attendees at anti-health care reform town halls carry assault weapons and signs saying “It is time to water the tree of liberty” (with the “blood of patriots and tyrants” as the quotation continues). All of which is just fine with the Gun Owners of America. Commenting on the idea of “Americans openly carrying firearms outside presidential appearances,”Pratt told CBS News that ”the most remarkable thing about this is that some find this behavior to be remarkable.” A few days later, Chris Matthews asked GOA spokesperson John Velleco whether people attending a presidential event should ”be allowed to walk in the door armed... Should they be allowed to come into the president’s company and sit in the first row with a loaded gun?” Velleco said that would be fine with him.
In times like this, accommodating the likes of Pratt and the GOA–over health care reform or anything else–is playing with fire.
Born in 1936, James Ridgeway has been reporting on politics for more than 45 years. He is currently Senior Washington Correspondent for Mother Jones, and recently wrote a blog on the 2008 presidential election for the Guardian online. He previously served as Washington Correspondent for the Village Voice; wrote for Ramparts and The New Republic; and founded and edited two independent newsletters, Hard Times and The Elements.
Ridgeway is the author of 16 books, including The Five Unanswered Questions About 9/11, It’s All for Sale: The Control of Global Resources, and Blood in the Face: The Ku Klux Klan, Aryan Nations, Nazi Skinheads, and the Rise of a New White Culture. He co-directed a companion film to Blood in the Face and a second documentary film, Feed, and has co-produced web videos for GuardianFilms.
Additional information and samples of James Ridgeway’s work can be found on his web site, http://jamesridgeway.net.
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