Tuesday, 22 January 2013

The NRA gets a lesson in Latin

One of the many subtexts in our current national debate on guns is the notion, embraced by conservatives and gun nuts, that Americans need to keep their guns, to prevent the federal government from imposing “tyranny”. Apparently “tyranny” includes Democrats who have the gall to nominate a black guy with a funny name for President.

There are many problems with this argument. The main problem is that the founding fathers who wrote the constitution feared the tyranny of armed mobs of private citizens almost as much as they feared the tyranny of a new king: they said so many times in the Federal Papers. That’s why the Constitution includes language in Article 2 Section 2, specifying that a “militia” consists of the troops who take orders from the president, not any armed loon who’s pissed off about his taxes. And that’s a good thing: without that restriction, any armed loon could indeed declare “Obama’s a tyrant” and starting shooting people. The founders never intended for any old man on the street to proclaim that there was a tyrant who needs to be brought to heel. And as we established in the Civil War, even if an entire state or region starts screaming “tyranny”, they can’t just make up their own rules and go off and start a new country. We already fought that war.

A second problem is that, particularly in the current climate, it is much more likely that a state government could impose “tyranny” and take away the people’s rights, than the federal government. Look at the laws which Republican governors are signing, to block abortion rights, voting rights, union rights….And Posse Comitatus doesn’t do a thing to prevent that form of tyranny, which is not only more likely – it’s actually happening now.

And thirdly, if these fat old white boys ever pried themselves out of their La-Z-Boys and decided to march, wheezing, into the hills to proclaim Teh Revolution, our military would kick their fat little butts in short order.

And that issue, in turn, will cause the semi-literate knuckle-dragging gun nuts to do something you wouldn’t expect: scream in Latin.

“Posse Comitatus!”

In other words, the legal doctrine that the President can’t use the military for domestic law enforcement. That is, the U.S. Army can’t be used to shut down the next Waco or Ruby Ridge or whatever.

Needless to say, the wingnuts have their law wrong on this, as on everything else.

First, a quick history lesson.

In 1876, not long after the Civil War, there was an incredibly close presidential election, which was settled by a back-room deal. According to the agreement, the Republican candidate for president would win the White House; in return, the new president would withdraw federal troops who were still occupying the south after the Civil War. When southern politicians began streaming back into Washington to take their seats in Congress, that wanted to make damn sure that those occupying forces never came back to the south. So they pushed for passage of the Posse Comitatus Act, which prevents the military from undertaking such operations inside the United States without an act of Congress.

The problem with the “Posse Comitatus” argument of the wingnuts, is that Congress has, in fact, written laws which allow the President to take action.

First, the Enforcement Act of 1870 was passed to stop groups like the Klan from using terror to suppress the black vote. Two more Enforcement Acts the following year allow the federal government to supervise southern elections, go after officials involved in vote suppression, use troops to suppress groups like the Klan and stop interference with federal operations, and suspend habeas corpus if necessary to stop groups like the Klan. As Eisenhower demonstrated in Little Rock, the President can use the Enforcement Acts to call up the military if state authorities can’t or won’t stop a violent attack on constitutional rights. Ike used it for school desegregation.

Second, the Insurrection Act, as reinterpreted in 2008, says that the President can use the military to suppress any insurrection, unlawful combination or conspiracy, if the violation of the law is so egregious that it deprives people of their rights, and the local authorities can’t or won’t fix the problem. And if the people causing the trouble are actively obstructing federal law, it doesn’t even matter what the local authorities are doing.

Third, in 2011 the National Defense Authorization Act authorized the President to impose martial law upon any person who engages in hostilities against the United States, including anyone who commits a belligerent act or supports such hostilities. “Martial law” includes blowing your damn fool head off if you screw with the U.S. Army.

So if these “tyrant killers” deprive their neighbors of their rights, or violate federal law, or proclaim their independence from the United States, or whatever, the President can send in the same guys who conquered Iraq and plugged bin Laden. Army! Navy! Air Force! Marines!

…and the Coast Guard, which isn’t even restricted by the Posse Comitatus Act.

Also, if the wingnuts don’t have the local governor on their side in their little rebellion – which is very likely – the governor can send in the National Guard.

So there you go. If the gun nuts launch a rebellion and the President orders it crushed, that crushing process will be entirely successful, and entirely legal.

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