We won’t have to cope with delusional believers in nonexistent “death panels” stalking those health care town hall meetings much longer, not with politicians left and right racing to remove from health care legislation any hint that perhaps people might want medical counseling on end-of-life care.

So what will placate the armed and dangerous gun guys? Nothing.

They’ve been showing up for President Barack Obama’s public appearances, boldly displaying their perfectly state-permitted firearms. They did it first in New Hampshire and then this week in Arizona, where one man became a media celebrity by turning up outside an Obama speech in Phoenix carrying not only a pistol but, for good measure, an AR-15 semiautomatic assault rifle.

Those who bring loaded weapons to political events tell us they’re doing so simply to demonstrate that they have rights. The Secret Service says it is quite capable of protecting the president, and so far he hasn’t been endangered.

But the rest of us don’t have 24-hour protectors who search and sweep, speak into remote radios and stop anyone who seems remotely suspicious. Out there on the blazing sidewalk, beyond the ring of security barriers and metal detectors that encloses the president, it’s just too bad if tempers might grow a bit too hot, if a gun drops amid a jostling crowd and accidentally discharges, or a curious child reaches for a gleaming piece that’s captured his eye.

Do not mistake the flaunting of weaponry for democratic free expression. It’s intimidation.

“It changes the nature of political debate to add these weapons,” says Paul Helmke, the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. “It’s really hard to talk back to somebody who’s got a gun. This is the part that’s new. It’s trying to trump political discourse with the weapon.”

From the looks of things, you might think that Obama is following through on his campaign pledge to reinstitute the lapsed ban on assault weapons. He isn’t. You might think the Democratic Congress is racing to pass the overdue imposition of background checks for gun buyers at unregulated gun shows. It isn’t.

Obama and the Democrats haven’t stared down the gun lobby. They’ve enabled it.

In April, Obama turned aside a plea from Mexico’s president to reinstate the assault-weapons ban to help ease drug-related violence along the border. In May, Obama signed a measure — supported by Democrats in Congress — allowing visitors to carry concealed weapons in national parks.

Last weekend, the president, first lady Michelle Obama and their daughters toured Yellowstone and Grand Canyon national parks, generating images of the Obamas as picture-perfect icons of healthy family fun. They were, of course, wrapped in the shield of the Secret Service, and made their trip before the law loosening restrictions on guns in the parks takes effect next February. Then the rest of us will be on our own in the case of a shooting that might occur while we try to absorb the splendor the first family so clearly enjoyed.

The White House response to the presence of gun-toting citizens near presidential events has the same tone of appeasement that marks its gun policy. The administration says it’s all OK with them so long as gun owners stay within state laws and are “being safe,” as spokesman Bill Burton put it.

How, exactly, does a citizen outside the presidential security zone find safety when loaded weapons are brought into hot crowds of passionate political protesters? The notion is absurd or arrogant, take your pick.

But then, the same can be said of Obama and those Democrats who believe that if they just try to get along with the gun lobby, the gun lobby will get along with them. Now we have the response: Gun fetishists will celebrate by packing heat outside presidential events, gleefully modeling their wares for the media — all while voicing their bizarre suspicion that the government is plotting to seize their guns.

This incendiary mix of political passion, weird thinking and weaponry is likely to explode. Even if it doesn’t, perhaps Americans who are learning for the first time that loose state laws really do allow loaded guns to be carried by just about anyone — to any place — will be shocked. “I think this latest thing with guns at these events just doesn’t meet the smell test with the general public,” Helmke says. “When the general public sees that, it says, ‘That’s not what we want.”’

Let’s hope so.

Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.

© 2009, Washington Post Writers Group


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