The White House may have bungled the health care reform debate, as many pundits are saying. But it's done a much better job of dealing with a sidecar controversy, of firearms carried openly at political rallies, by keeping its cool and not engaging in hair-trigger responses.
The same can't be said for knee-jerk anti-gun groups, who are now in the position of arguing that the Second Amendment and state gun laws don't apply when the president comes to town.
The gun-toting is obviously intended as a test and a provocation -- as an in-your-face challenge to a president whose positions on the gun issue have spurred suspicion among Americans who jealously guard their Second Amendment rights. An overreaction by the White House -- even if it came in the form of Secret Service mandate that protesters come unarmed -- would only refuel fears that Obama is a gun-grabber. But so far, at least, the president's PR people have played it perfectly by playing it cool.
Here's today's Washington Post:
White House Backs Right to Arms Outside Obama Events
But Some Fear Health Talks Will Spark Violence
Armed men seen mixing with protesters outside recent events held by President Obama acted within the law, the White House said Tuesday, attempting to allay fears of a security threat.
Robert Gibbs, the White House press secretary, said people are entitled to carry weapons outside such events if local laws allow it. "There are laws that govern firearms that are done state or locally," he said. "Those laws don't change when the president comes to your state or locality."
Anti-gun campaigners disagreed with Gibbs's comments, voicing fears that volatile debates over health-care reform are more likely to turn violent if gun control is not enforced.
"What Gibbs said is wrong," said Paul Helmke, president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence. "Individuals carrying loaded weapons at these events require constant attention from police and Secret Service officers. It's crazy to bring a gun to these events. It endangers everybody."
The past week has seen a spate of men carrying firearms while milling outside meetings Obama has held to defend his health-care reform effort. On Monday, a man with an AR-15 semiautomatic assault rifle strapped to his shoulder was outside a veterans' event in Phoenix. He was one of a dozen men who reportedly had guns outside the forum.
Phoenix police made no arrests, saying Arizona law allows weapons to be carried in the open.
Last week, a man with a gun strapped to his leg held a sign outside an Obama town hall meeting in Portsmouth, N.H., that read: "It's time to water the tree of liberty."
Before the same meeting, Richard Terry Young, a New Hampshire resident, was arrested by the Secret Service for allegedly having a loaded, unlicensed gun in his car. Young was stopped inside the school where Obama held the forum, having reportedly sneaked past a security perimeter.
Ed Donovan, a spokesman for the Secret Service, said incidents of firearms being carried outside presidential events are a "relatively new phenomenon." But he said the president's safety is not being jeopardized. "We're well aware of the subjects that are showing up at these events with firearms," he said. "We work closely with local law enforcement to make sure that their very strict laws on gun permits are administered. These people weren't ticketed for events and wouldn't have been allowed inside and weren't in a position outside to offer a threat." The immediate area occupied by Obama on such trips is considered a federal site where weapons are not permitted, Donovan said.
The only potentially troubling part of the story surfaces in the final paragraph I excerpted, which seems to indicate that the Secret Service is involved in active surveillance (that it is "well aware") of individuals who choose to come armed to rallies -- which raises the possibility that these people might be placed on Secret Service "watch lists" simply because they're exercising their state and federal gun rights at a political rally.
The Secret Service is expected to keep track of individuals who pose credible threats to the president, but does someone who shows up at an Obama event openly armed, as a way of making a statement about gun rights, end up on, or belong on, such a list? That's a question that bears more scrutiny and debate as the situation evolves.