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Oath Keepers

Patriots or domestic terrorists?

Scott Garrett, seven-term Republican Congressman from New Jersey’s northernmost congressional district, went to a breakfast with a member of the Oath Keepers, a law enforcement group pledged to uphold the Constitution.  Now he’s in a bitter fight with Democrats who claim he’s associated with a terrorist organization.

Garret’s precarious political position stems in great part to the divide between the New Jersey approach to guns and the federal one.  The U.S. Constitution protects gun rights.  The NJ state constitution doesn’t.  It’s a matter of states’ rights.

States’ Rights

“States’ Rights!” was the cry of opponents of school desegregation fifty years ago.  They believe that matters of busing, desegregation, and the like should be settled in the state house, not left to Washington to decide.  Trump has said the same in 2016, proposing that the next generation of abortion policy should be left to the states to decide.  As a policy making strategy, states’ rights has failed, first as a result of the Reconstruction Amendments (13th, 14th and 15th) and later Supreme Court decisions that affirmed federal supremacy in matters of civil rights – Brown v Board of Education and Obergefell v Hodges being prime examples.

In contrast, the states have been much more active in gun rights legislation than the federal government.  The federal government reacted with a flurry of gun laws in response to three events: lawlessness during Prohibition (the National Firearms Act of 1934), to the assassination of John F Kennedy (the Gun Control Act of 1968), and the shooting of Ronald Reagan (Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act of 1993).  Gun rights advocates seem for the most part to have accepted the level of federal control on guns.  One notable exception was the feral ban on certain rifles from 1994 to 2004.  The various states have been far more active in crafting laws specific to their jurisdictions.  The result is a range of gun control laws that vary greatly from state to state.

Concealed Carry – big differences among the states

Concealed carry of firearms is regulated far differently in the various states.  In eleven states, concealed carry is allowed without a permit.  In eleven other states, local officials “may issue” a CCW permit, which generally means that one is not issued except under extraordinary circumstances – or typically, not at all.  Many other states have a “shall issue” policy with large numbers of citizens having been granted permits.  In Indiana, 10.8% of the adult population has a permit to carry concealed.

Semiautomatic and automatic weapons are subject to very different laws in the states.  California, Massachusetts, and New Jersey strictly regulate automatic weapons (“machine guns”), suppressors (“silencers”), and some semiautomatic firearms (“assault weapons”).  Most other states depend on more relaxed federal regulation.

Gun regulations in the states derive from the belief that the fewer guns that are in the hands of the populace, the fewer gun deaths will result.  Statistics who that states with strict gun law have a demonstrably lower rate of suicide by gun.  Comparison of states and countries with strict gun laws show no related change in the overall rate of suicide (by gun or not).  The relation of gun law to crime is oft argued, but there is no compelling conclusion to be drawn.

Advocates of strict gun control seek to make certain weapons illegal and to force their destruction, surrender to the state, or compulsory sale to the state.  In New Jersey, there are an estimated 100,000-300,000 prohibited assault firearms.  Few were turned during an amnesty period when they were made illegal in the 1990s.  Advocates of compulsory gun buy-backs point to a program in Australia, in which 600,000 firearms were bought from citizens and destroyed in 1996 and 2003.

Gun rights advocates in the Unites States fear similar prohibitions on various classes of firearms.  They describe first a voluntary surrender of arms, then a compulsory buy-back, followed by a program of aggressive confiscation.  Aggressive confiscation they imagine as a door-to-door search-and-seizure program staffed by police and perhaps the National Guard.  The federal government, in theory, does not keep records of gun purchases.  The FBI does track each purchase from a licensed gun dealer.  By regulation, it does not retain those records.  Cynics don’t believe that these records are erased.  In states like New Jersey, purchase records are retained.  With some database manipulation, the state could generate a list of guns and gun owners in the state, sorted by address.

Oath Keepers

In reaction to the threat of a door to door confiscation program, some police officers and military personnel have joined a group Oath Keepers, who have pledged not to participate in a gun confiscation program.  From the Oath Keepers website:

Oath Keepers is a non-partisan association of current and formerly serving military, police, and first responders, who pledge to fulfill the oath all military and police take to “defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.”  That oath, mandated by Article VI of the Constitution itself, is to the Constitution, not to the politicians, and Oath Keepers declare that they will not obey unconstitutional orders, such as orders to disarm the American people, to conduct warrantless searches, or to detain Americans as “enemy combatants” in violation of their ancient right to jury trial.  See the Oath Keepers Declaration of Orders We Will Not Obey for details.

Gun control advocates like the Anti-Defamation League describe the Oath Keepers as “Anti-Government Extremists”.  The Southern Poverty Law Center describes them as paramilitary radicals.  Whether Oath Keepers is an association of patriots or a domestic terrorism group is now an issue in the campaign for the fifth congressional district of New Jersey.  Scott Garrett, Republican incumbent since 2003, has been associated with the group.  His opponent, Josh Gottheimer, Democrat, supports both restrictive federal and state laws on guns.  This race may be one of the most expensive congressional races in this U.S. election season.

NJ 5th Congressional District – an unlikely battleground

New Jersey’s fifth congressional district is long and narrow, including all of New Jersey’s border with Pennsylvania and its entire portion of the Appalachian Trail on one end, to Bergen County, on the other.  Bergen County, rich, suburban, and more Democratic than the rest of the district, was added in response to the 2000 Census.  It is home to Loretta Weinberg, Democrat, NJ Senate majority leader, and candidate for lieutenant governor in 2009.  The fifth District (in various shapes) has elected a Republican to the Congress for eighty years.  No municipality is known for crime.  That this portion of the state would be home to gun activists on both sides is at once surprising and typical for New Jersey.

New Jersey generally leans to the left.  It is currently represented by a congressional delegation of twelve, split evenly by party.  Both Senators are Democrats.  The Statehouse is firmly Democratic.  The governor is Republican, but that’s likely to change in the 2017 elections.  The state has a history of implementing strict gun control measures since New Jersey passed a Regulation of Purchase and Sale of Firearms in 1966 that anticipated the federal Gun Control Act of 1968.  Since then, it is a contest in the state house to add to list of gun control measures in ways that range from frustrating for some to ludicrous for most.

New Jersey and Federal Regulation

Federal law defines gun and firearm specifically and logically.  In New Jersey, the definition of firearm includes slingshot and BB gun.  Don’t laugh.  When an unauthorized BB gun is used in a movie shoot, the actor is subject to penalty.  More frustrating to New Jersey gun owners is a prohibition on concealed carry permits.  New Jersey is a “may issue” state, which means that for the most part, no one gets a CCW unless they are an armored car driver or retired law enforcement officer.  This year, the NJ Senate moved on a proposal to allow CCWs to state legislators and judges.  Even in NJ, this inequitable proposal failed.  S1982 did not progress.  The state prohibited magazines with capacity more than fifteen rounds twenty years ago.  In 2016, it proposes to outlaw any magazine more than ten rounds.  Six months from passage of this bill an owner of one of these magazines would be a criminal if he did not “transfer, render inoperable, or voluntarily surrender a semi-automatic rifle or magazine that will be unlawful under the bill.”  The New Jersey state constitution includes no provision protecting the right to bear arms.  It’s no wonder that gun owners are scared of a state law outlawing their guns altogether.

The U.S. Supreme Court did clarify in Heller v District of Columbia (2008) and McDonald v Chicago (2010) affirming an individual’s right to possess a firearm for traditionally lawful purposes, including self-defense within the home.  Hillary Clinton has stated that she believes Heller was wrongly decided.  If there is a substantial shift in power in Washington in any of the three branches, the right to bear arms described by the Second Amendment and affirmed by Heller could come under serious pressure.

Oath Keepers, according to their published materials, promises that its members will refuse to carry out orders that contravene the Constitution.  Enlistees in the armed services have pledged to “obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me.”  Officers make no such pledge, promising only “to uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies foreign and domestic.”  If it were to come to a public disarmament program, these enlistees and police who have taken a similar oath would be in a bind.  Until they are put in that positon, there’s not much to worry about.  Or is there?

NJ Homeland Security

The New Jersey Office of Homeland Security on a web page dated 6 June 2016 listed the Oath Keepers as s domestic terrorism threat in the category of militia extremists.  On the same web site, the NJOHDP quotes the Anti-Defamation League as a data source in its threat assessment.  That’s a suspect source of data.  What would be more effective would be a close read of the Oath Keepers’ website.

Oath Keepers is not a secret organization.  It posts the membership of its board.  It clearly describes its organizational goals.  None are against the law, not today.  Sure, the comments posted on the site’s blogs have a fair share of discussion of FBI-induced paranoia and chemtrails.  There’s no indication that this group – at least at the official level – is any more dangerous than, say, Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership.

To fairly evaluate Oath Keepers, one can look at its website, then look at other organizations whose publically announced goals are counter to public policy.  The contrast is striking.

  • Traditionalist American Knights of the Ku Klux Klan
  • Loyal White Knights of the Ku Klux Klan
  • United Northern and Southern Knights of the Ku Klux Klan
  • Ku Klos Knights
  • American Patriot Party

Security Threat or Witch Hunt?

Loretta Weinberg called on the state attorney general to investigate Garrett for his links to the Oath Keepers.  It strikes me as nasty politics more than a matter of national security.  Draw your own conclusions.  I can think of a lot of better ways to spend the state’s money.

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