It often is said that the United States is nation of laws, not of people. That laws forged by the public and by elected representatives shield this nation from anarchy and ensure our country’s endurance.
During these politically polarized times, it is particularly essential that Americans cling to the notion that it is the law that provides the foundation upon which the United States is built, that our system of enforcement and courts and the separation of powers is what has provided the latticework for American exceptionalism. It also is essential for those in power to support that notion and serve as a bulwark against impulsiveness.
This comes to mind following a gun-rights meeting this month in Yelm. There, advocates decried Initiative 1639, which was passed by Washington voters last year to, among other things, raise the legal age for buying a semi-automatic rifle from 18 to 21. While citizens are encouraged to exercise their First Amendment rights of assembly and speech, it is important to take note of some of the incendiary rhetoric that was bandied about — and the failure of elected officials to provide the voice of reason.
According to The Seattle Times, some attendees at the meeting spoke of making a citizens’ arrest of state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, who has advocated for strong gun control measures. Thurston County Sheriff John Snaza, on hand to answer questions, asserted that he had the power to empanel a militia, but that he would not do so at this time.
In truth, state law does not give sheriffs the power to swear in a militia. It does require them to “keep and preserve the peace … and quiet and suppress all affrays, riots, unlawful assemblies and insurrections.”
Meanwhile, Thurston County Commissioner Gary Edwards, himself a former sheriff, warned of efforts to hold President Donald Trump accountable for misdeeds and possible crimes. “If we’re lucky, the president will get the courts stacked right,” Edwards later said. “If we’re not lucky, we might have a revolution.”
Initiative 1639, which was passed with 59 percent of the vote (in Clark County it was approved by 54 percent of voters), has been the impetus for many threats of lawlessness throughout the state. Several sheriffs have said they will not enforce it; the Yacolt council has declared their town a sanctuary from I-1639 laws; and two candidates for Battle Ground City Council — Shauna Walters and Josh VanGelder — have been running on a platform of opposition to the law.
Until a court rules otherwise, however, I-1639 is state law and must be respected.
I-1639, however, is merely a symptom of the nation’s political discord and the disharmony bubbling below the surface. In one example, state Rep. Matt Shea, R-Spokane Valley, has distributed a document titled “Biblical Basis for War,” which warns of opponents “if they do not yield — kill all males.” In another example, President Trump this month quoted a pastor on Twitter saying that if he is removed from office it would “cause a Civil War like fracture” in the United States.
Rhetoric is a far cry from violent action, but citizens would be remiss to discount the level of enmity that underlies modern politics. For all the talk about the threat posed by undocumented immigrants or foreign interference in elections, the truth is that the biggest threat to the United States might be building from within.
Elected officials in all positions at all levels of government must work to preserve the law, and to quiet and suppress all affrays. The risk of failure is too great to ignore.