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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: ‘Constitutionalists’ have some funny ideas about the Constitution

As a candidate for Congress last April, Jered Bonneau addressed a gun rights rally on the Capitol steps with an AK-47 over his shoulder. (SR)
As a candidate for Congress last April, Jered Bonneau addressed a gun rights rally on the Capitol steps with an AK-47 over his shoulder. (SR)

Scratch the surface of a “constitutionalist” – at least one of the Western anti-government variety – and what you often find underneath is an authoritarian. Or an anarchist.

Or, at the very least, a dedicated cherry picker, who can find or distort the bits of the Constitution that they like best and treat them as permission to ignore the laws they don’t like. This is a long-standing practice among Western constitutionalists, for whom the nation’s founding document serves as an infinitely malleable get-out-of-jail-free card.

You don’t have to pay taxes.

You don’t have to obey gun laws.

You don’t have to get a driver’s license.

You can set fires, seize land, harass cops, occupy federal buildings …

It’s an incredible document, that imaginary Constitution.

Incredibly freeing.

So this past week’s news that AK-packing constitutionalist and former congressional candidate Jered Bonneau is petitioning President Donald Trump to imperially “abolish” Washington’s voter-approved gun-control initiative might seem bafflingly contradictory, but it’s not. Similarly, the notion of the Republic chief of police unilterally deciding he won’t enforce the the initiative because he deems it unconstitutional comes straight from the same playbook. It’s squarely in line with the time-honored tradition of the imaginary Constitution, which governs the universe of the far right.

For a lot of folks in that universe, the imaginary Constitution protects gun rights to an extreme degree, placing them in a realm of utter legal and regulatory untouchability – far beyond, say, the First Amendment – and does almost nothing else. Bonneau seems to be of this school, and his petition calls for a kinglike president to wipe away a state law with a wave of his regal hand.

Just what the founders had in mind.

Initiative 1639 will raise the age to buy semi-automatic weapons from 18 to 21; implement enhanced background checks and a waiting period; and require safe storage of weapons in homes. It further establishes Washington citizens as more willing than state or federal lawmakers to undertake widely popular gun-safety regulations, against the outsized influence of extremists and the gun manufacturers lobby.

It’s going to pass, and probably by a comfortable margin. It’s now passing with 60 percent of the vote statewide, and it even won, narrowly, in Spokane County.

Bonneau created the petition on the White House website. If it receives 100,000 signatures in the next couple of weeks, the White House apparently will respond.

“We the People therefor (sic) ask our great President and our public servants, step in and abolish such laws restricting, infringing upon and/or otherwise limiting our right, that has been guaranteed to us under the 2nd amendment to the Bill of Rights and further protected and solidified through centuries of bloodshed and legal proceedings,” it says.

How does a constitutionalist explain approving the authority for a president to unilaterally cancel lawfully passed state regulation? I emailed Bonneau and didn’t get an answer.

But such contradictions haven’t tended to bother radical “constitutionalists” very much, over the course of the region’s rich history with extremists who identify, variously, as constitutionalists or patriots or militia members or members of the American Redoubt.

The worst chapters of that history were dangerously bad, from Ruby Ridge to the Militia of Montana to Timothy McVeigh. But surrounding those prominent outbursts has been a long history of lesser dust-ups in which constitutionalists have – like Bonneau – called for unconstitutional, or merely ridiculous, acts under the auspices of being true to the Constitution.

In the 1990s, during a flourishing of such extremism in this region, the seriously worrying stuff was always accompanied by seriously silly stuff.

Constitutionalists objected to a fringed flag flying in front of the Stevens County Courthouse, asserting it nullified the Constitution and implemented “admiralty law.”

A Wenatchee man acquired the name of the city to form a corporation to educate people about the Constitution and create a common-law township – and tried to levy fines against the city for not changing its name.

In Bonner County, a group pushed a measure that would have required every head of household to have a firearm and ammunition. (A legal analysis conducted for the county concluded – delightfully – that such a measure would violate the Second Amendment to the Constitution; the right to bear arms, the county attorney said, includes a right not to bear arms.)

All over the region, constitutionalists filed fraudulent liens and nonsensical court documents, refused to pay taxes or buy licenses or allow building inspections.

It was a heyday for wingnuttery.

Kind of like now.

Misbegotten ideas about the Constitution currently flow down from the very top – the White House. The folks who carry their AKs around as decoration are big fans. The Bundys are heroes to a whole swath of people who unironically carry their seemingly unread Constitutions in their shirt pockets to defend breaking inconvenient laws. The Idaho House of Representatives last year applauded a man who aimed a rifle at feds during the first Bundy standoff.

The internet is awash with extremist ideologies. The threats that arrive from the farthest fringes are made chillingly, fatally clear with regularity. And the tendrils into the mainstream seem stronger than ever.

Like Bonneau’s White House petition or the Republic chief’s grandstanding, almost all of it is done in the name, but not the actual principles, of the Constitution.

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