The Right to Bear Arms Against the Government

Jun 4, 2013

One of the interesting under-currents in the great American gun debate goes well beyond the right to self-defense against attacks on our person, family, or home. Instead it focuses on the need for the population to be significantly armed so that it can effectively rebel against a government that has become authoritarian and threatens our basic democratic rights and liberties. Those most freaked out by Obama’s election and then re-election, seeing both as a somehow illegitimate “socialist” takeover of the federal government, are now talking about gun rights being about the right of armed insurrection.

            That is a somewhat strained interpretation of the Second Amendment.  That amendment, before stating that “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed” by the government explains that right to bear arms by pointing out that “a well regulated militia is necessary to the security of a free state.” That is, the Second Amendment seems to be saying that a free state, in the days before a standing army, needed to have a well-regulated citizens’ militia to defend the state against external aggressors and internal insurrectionists. It does not seem to invite insurrection by an un-regulated self-appointed group of angry thugs.

            But if the Second Amendment does not support a right to armed insurrection when angry feelings move us, our Declaration of Independence certainly might be interpreted in that way. It’s whole point was to explain the grievances that were leading the original colonies to reject the right of the British to rule them and to justify the Colonies’ use of armed force to keep the British government from trying to continue that rule. 

            Given that many of the settlers of the original thirteen colonies were fleeing religious persecution or the chaos of British efforts to exert sovereignty over Scotland, Ireland, and Wales, it is not surprising that there was and is sympathy for the right of rebellion. For better or worse, we fought a bloody civil war over the right of insurrection and secession. But for many Americans, that Civil War did not settle the issue. The federal government’s use of the federal police and, even, the army to enforce court rulings on desegregation of southern schools and to protect the rights of southern African Americans to vote and fully participate in the political and economic life of their communities, re-opened the old hostility to the federal government.

            That hostility actually dates back to soon after the federal Constitution was adopted when farmers producing whiskey in western Pennsylvania refused to pay a federal tax on their whiskey, threatening federal tax collectors with violence.  George Washington, without a standing army he could rely on, called on the governors of Pennsylvania, Virginia, Maryland, and New Jersey to mobilize their “well regulated militias” and Washington personally led a militia force of 13,000 to suppress that insurgency against the federal government. Fortunately there was no armed confrontation.

            Looking back over our nation’s political history, it is informative to ponder what role the threat of armed insurrection played in our democratic development. We started from an initial democracy in which only white men who owned land could vote, where the enslavement of Africans by force was recognized in our constitution, and where women had no political rights at all. Although a bloody civil war laid the basis for ending slavery, it did not lead to African Americans being given most civil rights. That was not to come until almost a hundred years after our Civil War.

            One can certainly ask whether our democracy has ever been enhanced by citizens backing up their political opinions by waving firearms in threatening ways. Do we really want people who are exercising their right to protest or support government policy going armed to political demonstrations, political rallies, and voting places?

            We have had some experience with that. Many forget that it was the Black Power movement that first asserted the right to carry firearms to political events to demonstrate that they were not willing to be ignored or threatened any longer.  Their threat to “off the pigs,” however, may not have had a positive political outcome. The same might be said of the largely white Weather Underground that took to the armed robbery of banks and planting bombs in public buildings. On the right there was the militia movement threatening local sheriffs and police and Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols blowing up of the Oklahoma City federal building along with dozens of fellow citizens, many of them children.

            Do we really want to return to the days of armed political expression:  The Ku Klux Klan terrorizing blacks or Catholics or Jews? Private armies of Pinkerton guards hired by corporations to attack workers trying to organize labor unions? Do we want to return to armed lynch mobs pursuing private justice? How about more bombings and murders at women’s health clinics or more vigilante violence against gays and lesbians.

            During the 1960s and 1970s leftists, lost in their romantic but violent fantasies of rebellion, liked to quote Chairman Mao, asserting that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Now it is the far right making believe that they are arming themselves to protect American democracy when they primarily are concerned that the majority of Americans do not support their theocratic and authoritarian hopes for the future.

            Looking back over the last two centuries of the development of human and civil rights in the United States, it is not clear that women, racial and ethnic minorities, or gays won the right to respect and autonomy as full members of our society on the basis of organized violence or the threat of such violence. On the contrary, most of that progress was made through carefully orchestrated non-violent political organizing. 

            That turn away from intentional violence as a way to express our moral outrage and the depth of our political commitments has not stifled political debate and social change in the United States. Quite the contrary, it is far easier to listen to and be heard when interacting with neighbors and fellow citizens when we or they are not angrily snarling in each other’s’ faces while waving guns and threatening to blow each other away.