Pistols hanging from belts, rifles slung over backs, hundreds of firearms activists gathered close to the White House yesterday to declare that President Obama is the extremist, not them.
The protest, the first time that campaigners have openly carried weapons in a US national park, came amid growing fears in Washington — voiced last week by Bill Clinton — over the violent anti-Government rhetoric that is spreading across the American heartland.
Equally alarming to many is that the gathering was made up of little-known militia and gun-obsessed organisations that have begun to proliferate since Mr Obama came to power.
One reason for their growing numbers is that they believe the powerful and well-funded National Rifle Association, a powerhouse in expanding the right to bear arms over the past 30 years, has become too mainstream and is not taking on the Obama Administration aggressively enough.
The date of the gathering was also a painful one for gun control and anti-militia groups: it fell on the anniversary of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, which left 168 dead, and the final confrontation between federal authorities and the Branch Davidian cult in Waco, Texas, in 1993. Organisers insist that those dates had nothing to do with the protest. Yesterday was chosen, they say, to mark the 1775 battles at Lexington and Concord that began the War of Independence against British rule.
The demonstration was marked by the same rhetoric that has galvanised the Tea Party movement and which crowds hear from Sarah Palin on an almost daily basis: disgust with Mr Obama’s agenda, rage at his health reform legislation, Government bailouts, accusations of a socialist White House and an unconstitutional takeover of American life by Washington.
“We are in a war,” said Larry Pratt, president of Gunowners of America. “The other side knows they are at war because they started it. They’re coming for our freedom, for our money, for our kids, for our property. They’re coming for everything because they are socialists.”
At the rally were several prominent members of the militia movement, which includes hitherto unknown groups such as Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership. They included Mike Vanderboegh, who has advocated throwing bricks through the windows of Democrats who voted for Mr Obama’s health reforms. Another, Tom Fernandez, has organised a nationwide alert system to mobilise armed resistance to any government effort to seize firearms.
What alarms Mr Clinton and others is the fear that the antipathy to Mr Obama and his policies could trigger another home-grown atrocity similar to Timothy McVeigh’s bomb attack in Oklahoma City on April 19, 1995. Until the September 11 attack, it was the worst act of terrorism on American soil.
Ironically, few protesters credited Mr Obama with signing the Bill that allowed them, for the first time, to carry weapons openly in a federal park. Yesterday’s protest was at Gravelly Point, Virginia, on the doorstep of the reviled Government.
Laws guaranteeing the right to bear arms have also been strengthened in several states since Mr Obama took office, and have been bolstered by the US Supreme Court. Yet the militias believe the President wants to take their guns away. Since Inauguration Day, gun sales have risen by 20 per cent and 80 million people in the US now own guns.
Some of these small groups believe the NRA is too passive. One group, Calguns, says it has spotted a loophole in the Californian law banning assault weapons. They are recruiting lawyers to argue in court that AK47s and other semi-automatic weapons are legal if the models were not on the banned list.