Donald Trump managed to descend to new depths today by repeating a tedious gun-lobby argument that Hillary Clinton wants to “essentially abolish the Second Amendment” and then turning it into a “joking” suggestion that “Second-Amendment people” might hold the only way to deal with that threat. Nothing like a little assassination humor to liven things up on the campaign trail, eh?
But even as they condemn the shocking utterance, a lot of observers seem to be missing the fact that Trump is adapting a dangerously common right-wing claim. It’s that the most important purpose of the Second Amendment is not to allow people to defend themselves from robbers and muggers and would-be murderers and rapists if the police cannot get the job done, but rather to create a heavily armed populace prepared to undertake revolutionary violence if the government tries to impose “tyranny.” Let’s be clear about this doctrine: It lets the gun-wielders decide for themselves whether high taxes or government surveillance or Obamacare is a sufficient threat to liberty to justify getting out the shooting irons and killing the police officers and armed-services members assigned the responsibility of enforcing the “tyrannical” laws in question. And conservative politicians have often made it clear they understand and are okay with that incredible risk, as when Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle referred cheerfully to “Second-Amendment remedies” for the liberal policies supported by her opponent, Harry Reid. Angle was hardly alone: During the Republican presidential primaries this cycle, Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz both endorsed the idea of gun rights being a safeguard against too much Big Government liberalism. During her successful Senate campaign in 2014, rising GOP star Joni Ernst of Iowa used to happily talk about the “beautiful little Smith & Wesson” she carried with every intention of using it to defend herself and her family from “government, should they decide that my rights are no longer important.”
The most common use of this “right to revolution” argument, however, is to threaten anyone who doesn’t bend the knee to the Second Amendment itself. So it makes even the blandest support for gun-safety legislation self-evident proof of “tyranny” justifying even more stockpiling of lethal weapons to be used against “government.”
In Hillary Clinton’s case, the “tyrannical” threat is apparently that she doesn’t approve of a 5–4 decision reached by the Supreme Court in 2008 (D.C. v. Heller) that first made the Second Amendment’s “right to bear arms” a personal instead of collective (i.e., in the sense of authorizing a “well-regulated militia”) constitutional right. I guess that means the four dissenting Justices were tyrants, too, and that Ronald Reagan presided over an era of government tyranny since Heller had not at that point been handed down.
Credit Donald Trump for doing us the service of taking a dubious dog-whistle argument for violence, always discussed abstractly (it’s the “government,” not cops and soldiers, much less presidents, who will become bullet-riddled when “patriots” revolt), and with his characteristic crudeness making it a joke about rubbing out his opponent. Maybe next time some conservative pol makes a similar argument for turning to the gun if politics fails, we’ll all recognize it for the thinly veiled sedition it is.