A few days later, a couple of hundred people, many of them local Tea Party members, attended a "Day of Resistance" gun rights rally and march in Ventura.
Declared all but dead by liberal pundits after President Barack Obama's re-election in November, the conservative tea party movement has been revitalized in large part by the gun control debate that erupted after December's shooting in Newtown, Conn. Gunman Adam Lanza, 20, killed 20 children and six adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School before killing himself.
"It has absolutely given us a breath of life," said George Miller, co-founder of the Ventura County Tea Party. "I certainly don't think it's the only thing, but it's a baseline freedom, so it's kind of integral to the Tea Party message."
Herb Gooch, a political-science professor at California Lutheran University in Thousand Oaks, agreed, but with a qualification.
"It's a perfect kind of backlash issue regarding constitutional rights, which is, after all, what they pride themselves on," he said. "But it remains to be seen how much the movement has been rejuvenated."
The tea party movement came to prominence in 2009 after Obama, whom members view as a big-government liberal, was elected president. Composed of hundreds of autonomous groups, the movement advocates strict adherence to the U.S. Constitution, a limited federal government and reduced government spending, taxes and national debt.
The movement had success in the midterm elections of 2010, when a number of tea party-backed candidates were elected to Congress and Republicans regained control of the House of Representatives.
But Obama's re-election in November was widely seen as a repudiation of the tea party. High-profile candidates backed by the tea party were defeated, including Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., and Rep. Allen West, R-Fla. The Republican leadership stripped some surviving tea party-allied Congress members of coveted committee posts.
Tea party members, including those in Ventura County, did some soul-searching.
"After Obama became elected again, there were a lot of pretty sullen people, not sure whether or not all their hard work the past four years had actually meant anything," said Carla Bonney, a former local tea party leader who formed an allied group, Not Going to Take It Anymore, about two years ago.
Doug Crosse, founder of the Simi Valley/Moorpark Tea Party, said his group went through a similar period of reflection.
"After the election we questioned where we were and where we are going," he said, adding that he was speaking as an individual, not necessarily on behalf of the group. "Should we change focus, rebrand? Work on a better public image? After thought and discussion, the resounding decision was no. The message is sound, and our mission has not changed."
Then came Newtown, which sparked a new round of gun control calls. The gun lobby, led by the National Rifle Association, pushed back hard, and tea party groups, staunch defenders of the Second Amendment, snapped out of their doldrums and rallied to the cause. Last week, the U.S. Senate rejected tighter background checks for gun buyers.
"A lot of people who are tea party members are very pro Second Amendment, so it's very natural that this would be an issue that would vitalize them," Crosse said. "This debate has gotten people back kicking and screaming."
Local tea party groups have several thousand people on their mailing lists but count considerably fewer as core activists. A number of members listed on the Ventura County Tea Party website, for instance, live elsewhere in California or in other states.
"How many people are dedicated to tea party concepts? Very high," Miller said. "How many people actually show up at events and do stuff and contribute money? Not so good."
Crosse and other local party leaders say they haven't noticed a significant increase in membership since Newtown.
Other constitutional issues have also helped breathe new life into the movement. They include drones, which came to the forefront last month when Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., engaged in a more than 12-hour filibuster against the Obama administration's position that under "extraordinary circumstances," the president could sanction drone strikes on U.S. soil against citizens suspected of terrorism Paul is a tea party favorite.
"Yes, the gun debate was important," Bonney said. "But so is the drone debate, which is the right to privacy, and whether or not we have the right to a fair trial and judge and jury before someone tries to take us out."
Thousand Oaks Tea Party founder Carolyn Guillot said she opposes lobbying efforts by Ventura County to become one of six federally designated test sites for domestic drones to be used for nonmilitary purposes.
"I'm very much for the Constitution, our privacy, the Fourth Amendment," she said.
Most of the county's tea party groups, which also include the Conejo Valley Tea Party, are part of a loose affiliation called the Tea Party Action Alliance. The Thousand Oaks Tea Party is not part of it.
"They may be connected, but we're separate," Guillot said. "I don't want to compromise our principles." Still, Guillot attended the Simi Valley/Moorpark Tea Party's Second Amendment program in February. Miller was there, too.
Asked about the movement's future, Miller and Bonney said American politics tend to be cyclical and that conservatives will eventually regain power.
"There's obviously a very strong progressive movement in the country right now," Miller said. "And I think it will probably have to run its course."
Bonney said tea party groups and allied organizations must keep educating people "on the value of the ideals of the conservative movement." The groups try to do so through regular meetings, their websites and events such as February's Day of Resistance rally.
"And if we keep doing that, it's going to happen at some point," Bonney said. "The pendulum always swings." ___
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