Most of you have read "The End of Activism" http://www.therighter.com/columns and
know that I oppose conventional "activism," where one sends a donation to some
lobbying organization in the vain hope that it will protect one's rights. You've read
my condemnations of both the National Rifle Association and the Utah Shooting
Sports Council for their shameful support of ever more gun control. So you might
be surprised to learn that I spent a Saturday last month at the Utah State
Republican Convention-- especially since I'm not a delegate, nor even a
Utah is essentially a one-party state, so people of all political persuasions
take an interest in the Republican convention. Two of the first people I ran into
this year were Democratic candidates for mayor of Salt Lake City. And last year's
convention attracted quite a bit of attention. A Libertarian "fusion" candidate
was escorted out of the building by armed Sheriff's deputies and denied the
opportunity to speak, and several conservative Republican activists were
arrested for distributing literature to delegates. There were also numerous
complaints about Republican Party Chair Rob Bishop's chairing of the convention,
which many people considered unfair and in violation of Robert's Rules of
Order. And I'd heard rumors that the rank-and-file Republicans were unhappy with
their elected officials' support for gun control. So this year's convention
promised to be interesting.
Apparently the negative publicity resulting from the 1998 convention encouraged
party officials to be more tolerant this year. Upon arriving Saturday, I was
handed quite a bit of literature from both organizations and individuals. There
were bylaws proposals, resolutions, campaign literature, and please for
assistance on all manner of issues.
Most notable was an official-looking (but not official) booklet titled "1999
Republican Delegate Convention Guide," which listed Arnold Gaunt and Bruce Anderson
as contacts. (I should mention that I know Mr. Gaunt from his work on both
firearms rights and asset forfeiture, and that I met Mr. Anderson at a firearms meeting
earlier this year.) The introduction to the guide stated: "The principles and
ideals expressed in this Guide are based on the self-evident truths of the
Declaration of Independence, The U.S. Constitution and its Bill of Rights, the
Utah Republican Party Platform, lower taxes, and more individual freedom. We
hope you share these beliefs, but respect your right to disagree." This sounded
The guide consisted of three sections. The first, "Your Rights as a Convention
Delegate" addressed the issue of alleged abuses of power by the chair and
listed common abuses of Robert's Rules, provided citations, and showed
delegates with the proper response should they have questions for, or disagreement
with, the chair. The second section was a proposed Constitutional Amendment that
proposed a change in the method of delegate selection for the Republican National
Convention. The third section provided carefully-documented arguments in favor
of two resolutions relating to gun control. (The resolutions were mailed to
delegates in the official delegate package and were not included in the guide.)
On the back cover was the Bill of Rights.
Resolution 1 called for Utah's congressional delegation to oppose gun control
legislation by all means necessary, and the guide contained a detailed and
scathing analysis of Sen. Orrin Hatch's S. 254, the Juvenile Crime Bill, which
had just passed the Senate. Resolution 2 requested that Gov. Leavitt refrain
from calling a special session of the legislature to enact gun control
legislation, although he had previously announced that he intended to call
such a special session. The guide backed this with a detailed critique of the
governor's gun control proposals, and provided alternative suggestions.
This all sounds terribly boring, doesn't it? Why would anyone spend a Saturday
discussing the details of bylaws and amendments? Who cares about the minutiae of
Robert's Rules? What good are resolutions? After all, isn't writing to
legislators good enough-- especially since it rarely accomplishes anything? Wouldn't it
have been more fun to stage a demonstration, or burn Congressmen in effigy?
That's what I thought too, and that's why I'm writing this column. In the face
of the tidal wave of new and more tyrannical legislation, more and more
people are despairing of having any influence on government. Some are talking
about dropping out of society; others are talking about armed insurrection. But
it turns out that sometimes playing by the rules and working within the system
is remarkably effective. Doing so, and especially knowing how to do so
effectively, can be a valuable tool, and should not be overlooked.
Back to the convention. The first thing I noticed was that party chair Rob
Bishop did not chair the convention, as he did last year. I don't know whether
this was his personal choice, or whether it was in response to the complaints about the
previous convention. But Nolan Karras, who served as chair, did an exemplary
job of following Robert's Rules scrupulously, and quite a few people who had
attended the previous convention commented on the improvement.
While this superficially appeared to make the section of the guide on Robert's
Rules moot, the truth is that it was quite effective. Because the delegates better
understood the rules, they better understood what was going on at the convention. And
because the rules were followed carefully, the chair fulfilled his obligation to
make sure that each delegate knew exactly what was being discussed or voted upon at
any given time. Even I was able to follow the proceedings without difficulty.
The first order of business was considering amendments to
convention rules and then approving those rules. There was some
initial sparring between the chair and the delegates that
resulted in a challenge to the chair's ability to accurately
judge voice votes and a rather lengthy head count of those voting
for and against an amendment. It appeared to me that the
delegates were establishing that they would not tolerate any
questionable activities on the part of the chair, and were
willing to force head counts if necessary.
The next part of the convention was devoted to speeches by Utah's
elected officials at the state and federal level, all of whom are
Republicans. (It is a one party state, as I said!) The
governor, lieutenant governor, and each member of the
Congressional delegation spoke. While one might expect that
these officials would find their strongest support at the Utah
State Republican Convention, such was not the case, especially
for Gov. Leavitt and Sen. Hatch. In fact, the Deseret News
reported that "The haze of gunsmoke hung over the Republican
State Convention Saturday."
Although most of the delegates gave Gov. Leavitt a standing
ovation, many remained seated, and a few even walked out.
Leavitt seemed intent on presenting himself as a prime candidate
for national office, and it's rumored that he's actively seeking
the vice presidential spot in George W. Bush's campaign. Leavitt
apparently believes that endorsing politically correct gun
control is necessary to his higher aspirations.
He suggested that Republicans should acknowledge the necessity of
"reasonable" gun control, and was booed. He passionately
pronounced: "This is one Republican parent that doesn't want to
send my children to a school that is protected simply by arming
the teachers", and was met with shouts of "I do! I do!" After
numerous attempts to sell his gun control agenda, all of which
were loudly shouted down, he gave up and abruptly changed the
subject. Gov. Leavitt is so out of touch with reality that it
was later reported that he was surprised by this reaction.
Senator Hatch devoted most of his speech to defending S. 254,
apparently in response to the pending resolution. He tried to
pretend that his bill was a necessary response to Democratic
calls for more gun control, although it's essentially the same
tyrannical bill he's been trying to get passed for years, with a
few Democratic gun control amendments tacked on at his request.
He condescendingly accused us of not appreciating how hard he's
working to protect us from "Democrats". He resorted to the
"you're too stupid to understand the realities of Washington
politics" argument. He claimed that "all but 1% of the bill" was
"solidly Republican". Unfortunately for him, the delegates had
an analysis of S. 254 in their hands, and most of the people
around me referred to it as he spoke. (Has anyone besides me
noticed that S. 254 was originally labeled the Juvenile Justice
Bill and is now more commonly called the Juvenile Crime Bill? Is
this because the current version is a crime, and certainly
doesn't promote justice?)
Hatch also tried to portray himself as a supporter of the Second
Amendment by offering that he had once carried a concealed
firearm as a Deputy U.S. Marshal. While I suspect that this
reference was lost on the majority of delegates, at least a few
of the ones I spoke with understood what that really meant.
Hatch was actually saying that he, like many other Congresspeople
including the notorious Dianne Feinstein, had circumvented state
and federal firearms laws by being sworn as a Deputy U.S.
Marshal. As deputies, these politicans are exempt from
background checks, fingerprinting, training requirements,
restrictions on concealed carry, and all the other bureaucratic
nonsense they inflict on the rest of us. Hatch was admitting
that, as a senator, he is "above the law" and needn't follow the
same laws as the "ordinary citizens" he seeks to disarm.
Rather than an exuberant send-off for his (at the time) not yet
announced presidential bid, to which much reference was made,
Hatch received a muted, if not openly hostile, reaction.
Following the speeches, there was consideration of constitutional
amendments and resolutions. There were quite a number of these.
A resolution of non-support for "President Clinton's
unconstitutional attack on the peoples of Kosovo" was
enthusiastically passed. So was a commendation for Rep. Chris
Cannon for his work as a House Manager during the impeachment
trial. Other resolutions dealt with light rail, abortion, and
primaries. But the two resolutions that attracted the most
attention were the two dealing with gun control.
Resolution 1 concluded: "Resolved, That the Utah Republican Party
requests that Utah's US Senators and Representatives uphold their
oath of office by voting against all proposals and legislation
that compromise or subvert the Second Amendment, and utilize
whatever means are necessary, including the filibuster, to
prevent their passage, so as to protect the inherent rights of
Utahns and Americans."
This was a fairly strong and pointed condemnation of not only
Sen. Hatch, sponsor of the abominable Juvenile Crime Bill, but
also of Sen. Bennett, who voted for it. Remember that less than
an hour before the resolution was considered, Hatch had spent
most of his speech defending his bill. He had also provided a
free breakfast for all delegates, which I believe he does every
year. But he wasn't able to win enough support to stop passage
of the resolution, by what seemed to me to be a sizeable
majority. (It was a voice vote, so no numbers are available.
But the room echoed with loudly shouted votes.)
Resolution 2 concluded: "Resolved, That the Utah Republican Party
requests Governor Leavitt exercise prudence, responsibility, and
restraint by not calling a special session of the Legislature for
the purpose of enacting laws that infringe on the right of
This resolution also passed by a large margin, at least based on
the volume of voice votes. Combined with the previous loud
heckling of Gov. Leavitt, it sent a rather strong message to the
governor that he does not have the support of his own party, and
that he will not be able to railroad his gun control agenda
through the legislature as easily as he expected. (One can hope
that this lack of support will deter his quest for higher office,
but that's probably too much to hope for!)
"But what was actually accomplished with all this?" you may ask.
After all, resolutions are non-binding. Orrin Hatch is still
running for President and still pushing his horror of a bill.
Gov. Leavitt still supports civilian disarmament, and in fact has
become more militant about doing so since the convention.
A closer examination, however, reveals that some real progress
has been made. Gov. Leavitt has stopped saying he will call a
special "gun control" session of the legislature no matter what,
and is now saying he'll call a special session "if there's
consensus". The Speaker of the House, Marty Stephens, has gone
on record as saying that he doesn't believe a special session is
needed, and that he will hold bills in the Rules committee to
force a vote to release them.
Obviously this is not solely the result of the convention.
Utah's gun owners have been calling legislators, holding
meetings, deluging newspapers with letters, attending interim
sessions of the legislature, and otherwise mobilizing to preserve
their rights. But Utah's Republicans can no longer pretend they
have their party's support, nor that delegates support their
liberal-socialist agenda. Whether the Republican delegates will
take the next step and actually discipline elected officials for
ignoring resolutions remains to be seen.
I certainly don't pretend that learning Robert's Rules, attending
conventions and passing resolutions are going to return us to a
limited, Constitutional government. They're not going to end
corruption nor eliminate abuses of power. But working within the
system is not particularly difficult, requires little money, and
the tools are available to everyone. And I was surprised at how
effective these tools can be when they're properly understood and
What I saw at the Republican Convention was not just the usual
corruption and pandering that have turned off most thinking
adults, but activism of the very best kind. Arnold Gaunt, Bruce
Anderson, Neil Sagers (co-sponsor of one of the resolutions), and
others didn't wait for someone else to tell them what to do, or
to do it for them. They learned the system, mastered the rules
and, acting as individuals, used what they'd learned to effect
some concrete changes.
These techniques can work for members of any political party; I'm
not suggesting that you rush out and become a Republican. There
are disaffected members of all political parties, and I suspect
that these techniques might work even better in smaller "third"
parties. So if you do belong to a political party, learn how it
works, and under what rules it operates. Consider becoming a
delegate so that you can influence your party's platform and
policies. Learn who makes the rules, how they do it, and how you
can propose specific items you believe are important.
You can also use these ideas even if you choose not to belong to
a specific party or get involved in party politics. Most
political, lobbying, and charitable organizations have very
similar rules and organizing principles.
So if you'd like to see some positive changes in a party or
organization to which you belong, first learn the mission
statement, platform, rules and organizational structure. It also
helps to learn the culture of the organization and the
personalities involved. Then decide on a limited number of goals
or objectives; you can't change everything instantly. You're
most likely to be successful if the organization's actual
policies and behavior are in conflict with its stated mission and
platform. (In this case the Republicans were violating their
stated position of opposition to gun control, but it could just
as easily be Libertarians who accept tax money.)
Once you've chosen your goals, be prepared to carefully document
the reasons others should support your proposals. Most people
become actively involved in an organization because they care
about an issue or issues, and they're generally receptive to new
information. Education of your target audience is critical.
Education about issues is not enough. You must also educate
people to understand that they have the power and
responsibility to control the organization; they're not just
there to "rubber stamp" what "leadership" tells them to do. If
you give people the tools they need to promote change, and
provide some leadership, you're likely to be successful.
Is there something that you would like to see changed within a
party or organization? If so, give this a try!
If you'd like to learn more, check out Robert's Rules in Plain
English by Doris P. Zimmerman, Harper Perennial, 1997 (a link
should be up in my bookstore,
Happy Independence Day to all of you!
Sarah Thompson, M.D., a retired
physician and writer, is dedicated to the restoration of full civil liberties
and limited Constitutional government. She writes a column, The Righter,
which focuses on civil liberties and individual responsibility and action.
Visit her site, send your love her way,
and THANK GOODNESS we have such a wonderful Leader among us!