Armed Politics

When I was reporting a piece on far-right extremism a few months ago, some members of that political sector were hoping that the Obama presidency would provide new recruiting opportunities. And one academic expert noted that a new surge of extremism could take unforseen forms.

That observation came to mind as I read reports of people carrying guns - pistols and assault rifles - to an Obama speech in Phoenix this week. The big political issue these days, after all, is health care, hardly a topic that would make people reach for their weapons. Or so I would have thought.

According to the news site TalkingPointsMemo, which leans liberal while espousing traditional standards of accuracy in reporting, the gun display was organized by a former sympathizer of the "Viper Militia." That group's active members were sentenced to prison terms of 1-6 years in the 1990s on convictions involving the sizeable quantity of firearms and explosives the Vipers had accumulated. TPM also reported that some dismissed the group as big talkers.

That assessment's accuracy aside, the Southern Poverty Law Center has released a new report concluding that militia groups are growing in popularity again. These outfits, which aim to defend citizens against federal intrusion, have often veered into far-right territory. They had faded after a burst of unfriendly publicity following the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. A conservative political scientist, Carol M. Swain of Vanderbilt University, argues that the Law Center report is sloppy and politically biased. But if militias are on the rise, the trend is as worth noting as the presence of those guns outside a presidential speech.

After all, liberal commentator E.J. Dionne notes in The Washington Post, conservatives wouldn't have reacted casually to the presence of armed leftwingers outside an event featuring President George W. Bush.