The Second Amendment As Creating a Right to Armed Revolution

A lot of observers have noted a somewhat different tone in liberal reactions to the latest gun massacre, led by the president’s own exasperated denunciation of the inability of Congress to enact even gun safety measures supported by the vast majority of Americans, and indeed the vast majority of gun owners.

But I’d argue it isn’t just the virtually unanimous Republican decision to obey the NRA rather than public opinion in issues like the gun show loophole that’s polarizing the debate and driving liberals to distraction. It’s been the steady drift of conservatives towards radical conceptions of the Second Amendment that make any discussion of “compromise” on gun regulation impossible. And as I pointed out in my latest TPMCafe column, these radical conceptions are becoming especially alarming in view of the widespread conservative conviction that standard-brand liberalism represents some some of conspiracy to impose tyranny on the American people.

It’s this latter factor that elevates the theory that the Founders designed the Second Amendment to facilitate precisely the same kind of armed revolution that they undertook from an abstract historical argument to something very scary. When Ben Carson says he’s now convinced armed resistance to “tyranny” is the purpose of the Second Amendment, it’s kind of worth noting that the man believes we are imminently threatened by “tyranny” if Alinskyites like Obama and Hillary Clinton are allowed to serve in high national office? If that is indeed what the Second Amendment means–and at the very least Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz share Carson’s position–then who gets to decide when it’s time to start shooting cops and members of the armed forces (because that’s what this means, much as right-to-revolution advocates want to keep it at the level of an abstract “government”)? People who think Obamacare is “slavery?” or that progressive taxation is “looting?” or that we are at a “tipping point” where those people will soon extinguish private property rights? How about people who think America is like Nazi Germany (again, a comparison Ben Carson is constantly inviting) where millions of babies are being slaughtered? Do they get to decide when armed revolution is appropriate or necessary?

I ask these questions because there’s no doubt in my mind that the emotional underpinning of the right-to-revolution understanding of the Second Amendment is to present an ongoing threat to those of us in the other political camp that there’s only so much of this godless liberalism that good righteous people can be expected to tolerate. Yeah, they’ll engage in democratic political activity and fight out elections, but in the end, their “rights,” as they are constantly asserting, are created by Nature and Nature’s God, and by God if they cannot be vindicated by conventional means, there’s always The Gun that the Founders wisely provided as a fallback option for constitutional conservatism.

This radical approach should not be confused with the more traditional conservative belief that the Second Amendment confers a right to individual firearm possession for purposes of protecting themselves and their families against violent crime, or even of hunting and other recreational pursuits. You can reason with people like that, since all constitutional amendments, even the First Amendment, are subject to regulations that do not affect their fundamental purpose.

But you cannot have a rational discussion on gun safety regulation with people who are quietly wondering if it’s time to use their guns on you and/or your political representatives. And that will be the case until such time as conservatives abandon the right-to-revolution talk.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.