Every time we have a wide-ranging debate on gun regulation in this country, an especially sinister argument emerges from certain conservative precincts. National Review’s David French articulates it very clearly:
[A]n assault-weapon ban (along with a ban on high-capacity magazines) would gut the concept of an armed citizenry as a final, emergency bulwark against tyranny. No credible person doubts that the combination of a reliable semiautomatic rifle and a large-capacity magazine is far more potent than a revolver, bolt-action rifle, or pump-action shotgun. A free citizen armed with an assault rifle is more formidable than a free citizen armed only with a pistol. A population armed with assault rifles is more formidable than a population armed with less lethal weapons.
Yes, and a population armed with tanks, artillery, and weapons of mass destruction would be even more formidable. But I digress.
French writes as though everyone understands and accepts that the Second Amendment was intended eternally to protect a “collective obligation to defend liberty against state tyranny.” It’s actually a fringe position that has crept into mainstream politics very recently. When Ted Cruz embraced it during the 2016 Republican presidential nominating contest (as did Mike Huckabee and Ben Carson), his rival Lindsey Graham was clearly horrified:
“Well, we tried that once in South Carolina. I wouldn’t go down that road again,” Graham said, in an apparent reference to the Civil War. “I think an informed electorate is probably a better check than, you know, guns in the streets.”
Graham’s sarcasm may have obscured an effort to expose what some of these lofty invocations of the Second Amendment as a “bulwark against state tyranny” really suggest. The idea is that we need to arm Americans to the teeth in case it becomes necessary or convenient for them to begin shooting policy officers and members of the military as agents of tyranny. Where exactly is the line between normal government and tyranny? That’s a question Second Amendment ultras never answer. During the Obama administration, the word tyranny was tossed around on the right like a beanbag, applied to outrages ranging from Obamacare to tax rates to executive orders on immigration — not to mention entirely imaginary conspiracies like the psychotic Agenda 21 delusion (the notion that local government land-use regulations are part of a U.N. plot to destroy capitalism) that seeped out of the John Birch Society and infected a remarkable number of regular Republican politicians in recent years.
You get the sense on occasion that what many of these defenders of a right of armed revolution have in mind by “tyranny” is gun regulations themselves. The logic is perfectly circular: If we need every patriotic American to stockpile weapons to protect our freedoms, then any effort to restrict that “right” is ipso facto an act of tyranny justifying even more weapons stockpiling. And underneath the surface, the contempt for law enforcement is corrosive. Once you begin thinking of the police and the military not as defenders of liberty and order but as potential enemies, it’s a short jaunt to the fever swamps where NRA president Wayne LaPierre once famously referred to federal ATF agents as “jack-booted government thugs.”
As always, when I hear this “right of revolution” talk (invariably trucked up in the tricolor garb of the American Revolution, as though we need fear today that we will again become the subjects of a foreign colonial power), I wonder how its proponents would feel about similar arguments coming from the left. What if members of the New Black Panther Party started showing up with their shooting irons at NRA rallies to cheer the Second Amendment? How about antifa? They most definitely think America is sinking into what David French calls “true authoritarianism.” And many millions of Americans fear that’s where we are headed via Donald Trump. Should they be buying up assault rifles and becoming familiar with techniques for piercing the body armor of the local police?
Yes, that’s a horrifying image. But we need to invoke it whenever we hear casual references to violent revolution as a viable option for freedom lovers, and an excuse for unlimited gun ownership. Lethal weaponry is not just a symbol or a cultural totem or a deterrent; its purpose is to kill and maim. And the victims of armed insurrection would not be abstractions like “tyranny” or “authoritarianism,” but flesh and blood fellow Americans, some of them the people we now regale in public spaces with the words Thank you for your service.