A lot of people were bewildered when official representatives of America’s third largest political party demonstrated in Waco this Sunday against the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. There was no reason to be surprised, I learned.

One week after four ATF agents were killed and 15 others wounded in a shoot-out with a heavily armed religious cult near here, about 40 protesters showed up in Waco carrying signs that said: “Arrest ATF gunmen,” “Is your church ATF approved?” “Investigate ATF murders,” “I fear gov’t guns,” and other similar sentiments.

At first I figured these protesters were religious fanatics, gun nuts, survivalists or some admixture. Waco has had its fair share of these visitors since the Feb. 28 tragedy and subsequent standoff.

It turns out, however, that most of last Sunday’s demonstrators were members of the Libertarian Party of Texas, who were expressing the political beliefs of the national Libertarian Party. “Our platform has called for the abolition of the ATF at least since 1979,” said Gary Johnson, national media relations manager for the Libertarian Party of Texas.

“Even if the ATF were perfect gentleman, we still would want to have them abolished because of what they do,” said Johnson. “First of all,” he said, “we are against taxes. We also are against taking away people’s guns. And that’s basically what the ATF does, so we’re against its entire charter — its purpose.”

Oppose agency’s actions

Besides philosophical differences, Johnson said Libertarians oppose the agency due to its actions. “The ATF is very aggressive in its whole attitude,” he said. “So there are horror stories people tell about the ATF. They go in and ransack the place. The ATF represents the worst case of government run amok.” What happened when 100 ATF agents stormed the heavily fortified Branch Davidian compound east of Waco “is typical of the way they act,” he said.

Since the shoot-out occurred, I have been trying to get a handle on the astonishing anti-government response the incident created. In an earlier column, I attributed the anti-government outpouring to gun nuts and loony extremists. That prompted the usual calls and letters from the bumper-sticker crowd who questioned my manhood and patriotism. But I didn’t expect a similar response from a political party that occasionally elects high government officials. Johnson, and Austin investor, ran for the U.S. Senate in Texas.

A matter of freedom

Libertarians opposed the ATF assault on the Branch Davidian compound due to freedom of religion, freedom to own guns and the freedom of individuals to be left alone unless they represent a public threat.

“Let’s say the Branch Davidians got all their guns and started marching west on Waco,” Johnson said. “I think at that point the state would have a compelling interest to stop them. So, it’s based upon actions taken. It is not based upon passive behavior of merely owning a large arsenal of weapons. It is only when there is a threat that they will actually use them against people that the state would have an interest in stepping in.”

Calling the Branch Davidians a cult, Johnson said, is a way to say they are not a real religion and not entitled to the First Amendment’s protection of freedom of religion. Regarding guns, Johnson said Libertarians have no problem in being philosophical bedfellows with the NRA.

Johnson said Libertarians are not supporting the Branch Davidians. “We are approaching this on the basis of the Bill of Rights and the Constitution and on the basis of individual liberty,” he said.

OK, so you can add Libertarians to the Big Brother paranoiacs, survivalists, religious fanatics, gun nuts and a few other groups who oppose the government’s intervention with this massively armed apocalyptic cult. Do we have a majority yet?

Rowland Nethaway’s column appears Wednesdays and Fridays.

Read the Tribune-Herald's 7-part investigative series on the inner workings of the Branch Davidians. Hours after Part Two appeared in print, the ATF raided the group's compound.

Read the Tribune-Herald’s account of the ATF raid on the Branch Davidian compound on Feb. 28, 1993. Four ATF agents and six in the compound were killed in the gunfight.

Read the daily news accounts of the 51-day siege at the Branch Davidian compound near Elk, which began Feb. 28 and lasted until April.

Read the accounts of April 19 and beyond: FBI agents began inserting canisters of tear gas into the Branch Davidian compound in the early morning hours. By noon, it was on fire.