Personally, (unlike my coauthor, it would seem) I’m appreciative of the current gun-control debate that has been sparked by the recent horrific shooting in Connecticut. But I do think that we should take my coauthor’s advice and have a real policy debate on gun-control, and not simply restrict a bunch of freedoms in a misguided, reactionary effort to make us safer.

So with that in mind, I’d like to address one of the most pervasive and fundamental pro-Second Amendment arguments out there: the idea that guns are necessary as the ultimate protection of our freedoms against tyranny. I’ve heard this argument put forward to mean one of three things, all of which have very different connotations for the right to bear arms.

1) That individuals should have guns in order to protect themselves from the tyranny of our current government.

This is perhaps the most common phrasing, but also the one that makes the least amount of sense. In particular, this is the excuse of innumerable criminals and criminal organizations. Timothy McVeigh believed that the US government was tyrannical, and used that as justification to blow up a federal building in Oklahoma City. The Crips and Bloods believe that the US government is tyrannical, and use that as justification to kill, steal, and sell drugs (among many other things). Rush Limbaugh has been preaching that the Obama Administration is tyrannical for four years now–does that give his listeners the right to go out and use their guns to resist the police? To not pay their taxes? To attack court buildings? To commit murder? To ignore the law?

Look, the law is the law. We live in a Democratic society. We hold elections. The winners of those elections make laws. We hold new elections. The winners of those elections change the laws. And we keep doing it over and over and over again. No one gets to start shooting up the place because they don’t like who won or what laws were passed.

2) That individuals should have guns in order to protect themselves from the tyranny of whatever may come should our current government fall.

This is at least logical, if more than a little paranoid and arguably self-fulfilling. The idea here is that individuals need to have guns to protect their liberty in case of a government collapse, in much the same way that we need to stock-pile canned goods to protect our lives in case of a natural disaster. Of course, our government is coming up on 250 years old, and I don’t think that this is what most people have in mind, but I actually can’t really argue with the logic behind this one.

3) That groups should have guns to protect society from the tyranny of whatever may come to try to overthrow the government of the people.

This is the most patriotic of the sentiments, and in my opinion the one that matches up most closely with what the Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote the Second Amendment in the first place. This acknowledges that we live in a democracy, that we have a government of the people, by the people, and for the people, and then places the burden for protecting that government–in a real, physical sense–on the people.

But this sentiment makes most sense in the context not of individuals, but of groups, of societies. After all, it is premised around the very notion that we live in a free society currently, and one that is worth protecting. And if we are protecting our society, that makes most sense to do as a society–not as a hodgepodge collection of individuals. In other words, that’s something that we should do as an army, a militia, a guard, or whatever you want to call it. And the right to carry weapons in the context of an army that exists to protect the integrity of our national government is a much different thing (for better or for worse) than the right to carry a concealed weapon to the grocery store.

Personally, I think the third argument is the only one that is worthy of enshrinement in law–but again, the implications of that argument look nothing like the current Right to Bear Arms as we currently understand it. What’s sad is that the first argument is both the most common one, and the one that is most clearly false.

  5 Responses to “Guns and Tyranny”

  1. As the Simpson’s say, “Guns aren’t toys – - they’re for family protection, hunting dangerous and delicious animals, and keeping the king of England out your face”.

    Starting with your third point – isn’t there something about a well regulated militia in the 2nd amendment itself? I sometimes wonder why that’s forgotten…

    When I think about this argument about the right to bear arms, I think about what we do if the government becomes tyrannical. There are plenty of cases in history of an elected president becoming president for life. Or a military deciding that a junta is the way to go. Or some crisis hits and martial law gets declared and never gets lifted. And one of the first things that happens when a government goes bad, is that they try to take away the ability of the populace to rebel.

    Now, I’m with you that the US is pretty stable. A democracy that’s lasted as long as the US has a lot of legitimacy and won’t be easy to overthrow. But… I understand the arguments that it may be harder to overthrow because the armed populace won’t let it be overthrown. I also understand the arguments that in the case of a major national disaster, or nuclear terrorist attack, or zombie apocalypse, that stability could be compromised.

    The problem is, if our government ever did get taken over by the military, it’s not clear what the average citizen could do against tanks, drones, and smart missiles launched from stealth bombers. Handguns wouldn’t help against that. So, while in theory the argument is sound, in practice I don’t think it would be – although I really hope it will never have to be put into practice.

  2. Okay, let’s break down your argument, because this is exactly the kind of reasoning I find fascinating.

    “When I think about this argument about the right to bear arms, I think about what we do if the government becomes tyrannical.”

    “Tyrannical” according to whom? I guess that’s what it all really comes down to. What’s the difference between Timothy McVeigh, blowing up an Oklahoma City Federal Building in a case of hyper-libertarianism gone horribly wrong, and your hypothetical person using their weapon to oppose tyranny? Why is the first one an act of terror, and the second one something that we should be protecting?

    “There are plenty of cases in history of an elected president becoming president for life. Or a military deciding that a junta is the way to go. Or some crisis hits and martial law gets declared and never gets lifted. ”

    These are all cases where the current Constitution is overthrown. But again, are you using your guns to protect your own, individual liberty–sort of a “dictators get off of my lawn”–or are you banding together to use your guns in conjunction with your fellow compatriots to restore the previous, overthrown regime? Is the argument that we have the right to bear arms, only so that they may be used in the even that our Constitutional regime is overthrown? Or that they may be used only to prevent the overthrown of our Constitutional regime?

    ” I understand the arguments that it may be harder to overthrow because the armed populace won’t let it be overthrown. ”

    I think you are trying to get at what I was saying with my point #3, right? But again, if the point of weapons is to protect the integrity of the Constitutional regime, then that is much more effectively accomplished through true citizen militias–or armies–than by 200 million unregistered hand-guns floating around out there.

    “I also understand the arguments that in the case of a major national disaster, or nuclear terrorist attack, or zombie apocalypse, that stability could be compromised.”

    Arming the populace cuts both ways in the case of a major disaster. Sometimes they are good; sometimes they are bad. Mostly they just complicate things.

  3. The difference between terrorism and rebellion is one we can argue over for a while, but a first pass is that it has to do with the selection of targets – military vs. civilian.

    The question of when tyranny is bad enough to justify armed citizen response is even harder, But it seems to me that there needs be at least some attempt to resolve things peacefully before armed response would be justified.

    Obviously, those are not nearly nuanced enough, but I think they are decent enough to rule out McVeigh as legitimate while still maintaining any number of situations in which government oppression can be legitimately resisted through force of arms.

    I think the argument is BOTH that we can use them to prevent the overthrow of the regime and also that we can use them to defend ourselves if the regime is overthrown. As I said, I don’t own a gun, and have trouble imagining the circumstances that would lead me to. But I find those arguments compelling as reasons for others who wish to own guns.

    There is little in the world that isn’t sometimes good, sometimes bad, and usually complicating. That’s true of everything from guns to butter. (Cholesterol… but so tasty…(I’m referring to butter in this parenthetical, not guns, which are neither tasty nor high in cholesterol)). If we tried to outlaw anything that wasn’t sometimes bad or complicating, we would outlaw everything, including laws outlawing things…

  4. So here’s the million dollar question: if the right to bear arms to protect ones liberty from oppression is such an important, natural human right to deserve enshrinement in the Constitution along with protection of Free religion, Free Speech, and Freedom of the Press–should it also be granted to Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank?

  5. Weird question… it’s not clear to me that it’s a “natural human right” so much as an attempt at a method to ensure that one’s natural human rights aren’t violated. we could have a whole new set of posts on what ‘natural human rights’ are. Although if memory serves we’ve done so in the past…

    That said, I have no idea what restrictions the palestinian authority places on guns, but they certainly don’t seem to have any interest in free religion, speech or press… so, it’s a very strange question. If the Palestinians ever get around to drafting a constitution that ensures them the more ‘natural human rights’, then it would be interesting to see if gun rights are included.

    Of course, folks with a history of terrorism probably should have restrictions on them. Although I realize that’s a slippery slope and tough to define.

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