Given how often the Second Amendment has been cited since the Dec. 14 massacre in Newtown, Conn., one can’t help but wish our founding fathers had elaborated a bit more on what they meant by: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.”
This was especially true when National Rifle Association honcho Wayne LaPierre appeared at the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearing last month on gun violence. When Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., mentioned some of his pro-gun constituents lamenting that he doesn’t “get the Second Amendment” because “we need the firepower and the ability to protect ourselves from our government, from the police, if they knock on our doors,” LaPierre agreed wholeheartedly.
“I think without any doubt, if you look at why our founding fathers put it there, they had lived under the tyranny of King George,” LaPierre responded, “and they wanted to make sure that these free people in this new country would never be subjugated again and have to live under tyranny.”
This wasn’t the first time I’d heard it claimed that the Second Amendment is a sort of backdoor “armed insurrection clause.” But saying something repeatedly only makes it seem true, so I’ve been curious about the historical basis for LaPierre’s belief that our founding fathers believed individuals have the right to any weaponry deemed necessary for warding off their particular definition of “tyranny.”
As any student of history knows, our biggest grievance with King George was “taxation without representation,” i.e., the colonists lacked the representatives in parliament to which they were entitled by the English Bill of Rights of 1689. But while our founding fathers resorted to violence to win their independence, they were forced to such exigencies because, unlike LaPierre, they didn’t live in a constitutional republic with separation of powers and a system of checks and balances.
Certainly the framers of the U.S. Constitution were no fans of armed insurrection. Article I, Section 8 gives Congress the power “to provide for calling for the militia to execute the laws of the union, suppress insurrections and repel invasions,” and Article III, Section 3 states “levying war” against the feds constitutes treason.
So let’s get this straight: “a well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state” apparently means our founding fathers believed individuals can have rifles with 30-round magazines to fend off state tyranny, but their “militia” — as defined in the same document, by the same people — can be ordered by the feds to quash a rebellion? So who “regulates” this “militia?”
It makes little sense, but this fanciful new interpretation of the Second Amendment has taken root in recent years, as succinctly argued by Rep. Steve Stockman, R-Texas, last month.
“The very purpose of the Second Amendment is to stop the government from disallowing people the means to defend against tyranny,” he said. Rep. Ted Yoho, R-Fla., upped the ante, saying its wording permits citizens “the same equipment as the military to protect them against the tyrannical government.”
But Nevada Tea Party diva and U.S. Senate candidate Sharron Angle was the most strident of all in a 2010 radio interview, saying: “If this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying ‘my goodness, what can we do to turn this country around?’ I’ll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.”
During the 1993 Waco siege, similar sentiments were expressed by a protester interviewed by a student reporter.
“The government is afraid of the guns people have, because they have to have control of the people at all times. Once you take away the guns, you can do anything to the people. … We are slowly turning into a socialist government. The government is continually growing bigger and more powerful, and the people need to prepare to defend themselves against government control.”
That onlooker was Timothy McVeigh, who later said he hoped his 1995 bombing of the Oklahoma City federal building would spark a national revolt. McVeigh later said he’d considered assassinating Attorney General Janet Reno and others responsible for what he deemed “tyranny” in Waco.
Was the Waco siege “tyranny,” as defined by LaPierre, Stockman, Yoho, Angle, et al? More importantly, does the U.S. Constitution leave it up to individuals to decide what constitutes “tyranny?” McVeigh’s actions are the logical endpoint of this “constitutional right to fight tyranny” argument. And no, this isn’t “guilt by association,” it’s “guilt by echoing a psychopath’s dubious beliefs about the Bill of Rights without mulling their ramifications.”
Such arguments are what one might expect to hear in the might-makes-right hellscape of Afghanistan, or in post-revolutionary Libya, where the armaments and whims of each particular local militia determine which laws get enforced or ignored. In the United States, the Second Amendment shouldn’t be treated like some kind of trump card that We the People can wield against one another.
JUSTIN VERNOLD is a copy editor at The Daily Star. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.