Anybody actually remember the 90s? Sure, you might say, I've still got my Super Nintendo and Lilith Fair t-shirts. When trying to recall politics you might scratch your head, and think about Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, and Janet Reno. You might even have a chuckle or two about Linda Tripp and Ross Perot.
You, like most folks these days, might have totally forgotten about what the radical and armed Right was up to back then. Since 9/11 we have tended to associate terrorism with radical Islamism in this country, but the horrific Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 was the bloodiest terror bombing in the nation's history up to that point. Separatist militia types were known to get into fracases with federal agents and spread paranoid fears about the "New World Order" and commando raids aided by black UN helicopters.
After 9/11, the face of terror changed, and with the new Islamist bogeyman haunting the nation's dreams, most everyone seems to have forgotten about the paranoid Right fringe. Guess what folks, this fringe done got respectable, and instead of being consigned to the margins, it has wormed its way into the center of American life while the rest of us were asleep at the wheel.
At the same time that fear of terror bombings on airplanes led to an ever-growing list of seemingly ridiculous TSA restrictions and the government claimed powers to wiretap without warrants and to torture, gun restrictions melted away. The assault weapons ban expired, and the NRA had a field day successfully pushing for guns to be allowed in just about every corner of American public life, from taverns to universities. Second Amendent absolutism has gone from being a ridiculous theory peddled by a fringe movement to the law of the land.
States like Florida forced welfare recipients to undergo humiliating and wasteful drug testing, but have been handing out conceal and carry permits like Crackerjack prizes. This same state has the infamous, NRA-backed "stand your ground" law, which makes armed citizens into their own judge, jury, and executioner. The Sunshine State now touts itself as "One Million Strong," apparently so angry old white men can settle parking lot disagreements with hot lead.
The paranoid fringe now has a bevy of political figures at its beck and call, and plenty of voices in the media spewing its talking points. Texas just overwhelmingly elected Ted Cruz to be its Senator, a man who has actually asserted that there is a UN plot to take away our golf courses. Fellow Texas politician Louie Gohmert responded to the Newtown massacre by lamenting that teachers in the school didn't have assault rifles of their own. These are the type of opinions that in a healthy society would be confined to ranters on street corners and senile drunks on barstools. Fox News made one of these ranters, Glenn Beck, its de facto leader in the aftermath of Obama's election. Beck regularly invited militia types on his show, and spun paranoid conspiracy theories and dire predictions of political apocalypse.
The old militia movement has morphed into something I call "God, gold, and guns conservatism." It's not just for the armed militiaman reading The Turner Diaries by the fire in his compound, but the aging suburbanite who went out and bought a gun after Obama's election, and who has spent a large chunk of his savings on gold bars peddled during the commercial breaks on Fox News.
For gun control advocacy to be effective, it will mean confronting this very powerful and volatile tendency in American political life. I get nervous thinking about how the God, gold, and guns crowd will react if new gun restrictions come down after years of progressive cowardice and indifference on the issue. (Remember, even president Obama was willing to approve concealed weapons in our national parks.) I fear a repeat of the political violence of the 1990s might be in the offing. I can only hope that my fears are misplaced, and that the recent advocates for sane gun legislation stick in their fight with a powerful nemesis.