In May 2004, six years before he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Allen West, a retired Army officer, spoke before a Republican group in Boca Raton, Florida. He used the occasion, according to an account of his remarks in the Palm Beach Post, to tell the story “of the 300 Spartans who fought to the death against an army of 10,000 Persians at the battle of Thermopylae in 480 B.C.”

“What is your Thermopylae?” he asked the crowd. “Where will you take a stand?”

It would be another three years before the Spartans and Thermopylae entered the pop-cultural consciousness in the film 300, but West had recited a legend — and a phrase, Molon Labe — that was already becoming an important credo among pro-Second Amendment activists.

Douglas County Sheriff John Hanlin’s Facebook profile picture.

Molon Labe (or ΜΟΛΩΝ ΛΑΒΕ) is a classical Greek phrase meaning “come and take [them],” attributed to King Leonidas of Sparta as a defiant response to the demand that his soldiers lay down their weapons. Gun-rights advocates have adopted the phrase as a challenge to perceived attempts by the government to confiscate firearms.

Those advocates include Sheriff John Hanlin, the chief law enforcement officer in the Oregon county where nine people were fatally shot at a community college on Thursday, and an outspoken critic of new gun laws. Hanlin has displayed an image featuring Molon Labe as his profile picture on Facebook, where he has shared many pro-gun links and memes, including an incendiary video outlining a debunked conspiracy theory about the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Molon Labe is also the title of a 2013 film directed by James Jaeger and produced in association with Oath Keepers, the controversial and aggressively pro-gun militia group whose members were famously involved in an armed standoff with federal officers in Nevada last year. According to the group’s county coordinator, Sheriff Hanlin is “active” in his local chapter of the Oath Keepers.

T-shirts, bumper stickers, and other Molon Labe merchandise are widely available online; last year, the gun manufacturer American Legacy Firearms offered customers its “NRA Special Edition Revolver,” an officially licensed design featuring the NRA logo and Molon Labe engraved on the hilt. West, who made heavy use of the slogan throughout his congressional career, made headlines last year by getting it tattooed on his forearm.

Writing last year in Esquire, Robert Bateman — like West, a retired Army lieutenant colonel — noted what he saw as the irony of Molon Labe’s glorification of “the absolute ruler of the most rigidly controlled military state in the ancient world … in which the individual had almost no rights [and] all able-bodied men were completely subject to the will of the leaders.”

[Photo: Michael Lloyd/Getty Images]