I keep recalling the immortal line Humphrey Bogart delivered in the 1946 movie The Big Sleep: “Such a lot of guns around town and so few brains. You're the second guy I've met today that seems to think a gat in the hand means the world by the tail,” just before - or was it just after? - disarming him.
The cause for remembrance is - you knew this was coming - a bill in the Idaho legislature. This one is Senate Bill 1056, which would repeal the long-standing (for most of a century) state law which has prohibited private militia groups from “associating and parading in public with firearms” - presumably, that is, loaded firearms. The bill is at this writing set for a vote on the Senate floor.
The sponsor, Senator Dan Foreman, represents the city of Moscow, a place where public safety is more or less Topic A these days. He offers the rationale that, “we cannot deny people their Second Amendment rights out of fear.”
It is a fig leaf only, for two reasons. One is that the long-standing Idaho law is almost certainly constitutional. Idaho legislators have in hand a letter from Mary McCord, legal director of the Institute for Constitutional Advocacy and Protection at Georgetown Law and former U.S. assistant attorney general for national security, saying flatly, “Idaho’s prohibition against unauthorized paramilitary organizations is fully consistent with the First and Second Amendments to the U.S. Constitution and with the Idaho Constitution.” The Supreme Court has specifically decided as much.
In a radio interview, McCord also pointed out this: “all 50 states have some provision in their state law, whether it's their state constitution or their state statutes, that prohibits private militia, private paramilitary activity.”
The second reason is that the way people challenge denial of their rights under the constitution in this country is by taking the issue to court, not legislating the answer. This is not about protecting someone’s rights; this is about reshaping Idaho law to create something new.
What is this about? With the usual caveat about avoiding mind reading, the only plausible explanation seems to be broad support of extreme right wing militia activity - and the intimidation factor some of their backers seem to want to encourage.
Some legislators have said this out loud. Senator James Ruchti of Pocatello, for one, said, “We are sending a message to militias: free rein, have at it, start training. We’re sending a message to hate groups to show up in our communities and share your message with us under arms. Bring your weapons.”
There’s that, and more.
One problem is a blurring of who actually has law enforcement authority; another is the pursuit of flat-out illegal acts (the attempted kidnapping and murder of the governor of Michigan, for example).
More broadly, one police organization summarized this way; “The normalization of the gathering of these groups in public and the possible appearance of these groups’ alignment with police agencies presents unique challenges to public and officer safety. During 2020, unauthorized armed groups protested public health lockdowns, opposed racial justice protestors, conspired to abduct state governors and kill law enforcement officers, and in an event indelibly imprinted on the country, participated in the siege of the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, during which five people died.”
I would add one more problem: The appearance of armed gangs (which is what they are) around polling places and other election activities disrupts our voting processes - as, apparently, they are intended to do (and seems to have been tried in some states). There is here a specific agenda to attack our right to govern ourselves - or to vote for anyone unapproved of by the gang.
In the end, this kind of thing will fail, because as Bogart reminded us so long ago, a gat in the hand does not mean the world by the tail.
But if some Idaho legislators get their way, we’ll have a lot more painful experiences, and threats to our common rights to govern ourselves, before we come to a broad-enough acceptance of that truth.