SECOND AMENDMENT SCENE: Militia superstar Mike Vanderboegh addresses the crowd at Fort Hunt National Park.
APRIL 19, WASHINGTON, DC — I’m scrubbing my armpits in the campground bathroom at Fort Hunt Park in Virginia. It’s taken more than 20 hours for me to get here for today’s firearm-friendly Restore the Constitution rally, which is supposed to commence shortly. The final leg of my trek was a two-mile walk, and, after washing up, I begin to worry that I hiked to the wrong place. Then I see two scraggly thirtysomething guys in combat boots roll out of the only car in the parking lot.
Emerging from a beaten maroon Ford Focus with a LIVE FREE OR DIE bumper sticker (and, it would turn out, several rifles and a billboard-size DON’T TREAD ON ME flag in the trunk), they give me assurance that I still have a good chance of getting shot at this morning. “All the organizers are in that lot over there,” says the more heavily bearded one. “We were just over here getting some damn sleep because we drove all night from Ohio.”
They’ve come for one of two rallies to be held in and around the nation’s capital today, April 19, a date that has become emblematically explosive in American history. In addition to it being Patriots’ Day in Massachusetts — an honorarium for colonists who set off the Revolutionary War — it’s also become the September 11 of domestic terrorism. On that morning in 1993, following an FBI siege on his Waco, Texas, compound, cult leader David Koresh orchestrated the largest tandem suicide in US history. Exactly two years later, in cockeyed memoriam of that tragedy, Timothy McVeigh massacred 168 people in Oklahoma City.
With those events in memory, this past Monday two different groups of gun enthusiasts descended toward the nation’s capitol to defend their “God-given right to bear arms.” The first posse — an NRA-backed coalition, and the less radical of the two — congregated on the National Mall (where guns are not permitted) for a Second Amendment March. The other — a more wild-card group of militia-minded agitators — assembled with open arms at Fort Hunt National Park in Virginia, 12 miles south of the capitol, for the first-ever Restore the Constitution rally.
In certain political climates, such happenings might go unnoticed — especially since, combined, they attracted far fewer than 1000 activists. But with threats of organized aggression on the rise, and in the wake of the Hutaree arrests in Michigan, these assemblies attracted a great deal of national interest. As such, the Phoenix traveled south to assess whether these gadflies are more inspired by ideals fought for at Lexington and Concord, as they claim, or by extremist ideologies that catalyzed the Waco and Oklahoma City tragedies.
Tailgates are unlatched and out come the tri-cornered hats, bulbous ammo-weighted waist bags, layers of excessive camouflage, and firearms — from pistols and show pieces to heavy artillery. For safety purposes, carriers are given bright yellow armbands and matching flags to push into long-barrel weapons, proof that their chambers are empty. Handguns, however — which are worn in plain sight on waists — are kept loaded.