Two out of three Americans see the Second Amendment as a safeguard against tyranny. What?
The notion that an individual right to bear arms guarantees the American people against government tyranny is of course an old one. Given its apparent validation in the Second Amendment of the Constitution itself, it's not surprising that the notion has survived in some way through to the 21st century. Given its defiance of history and common sense, though, what should be surprising is that it's survived to remain so widespread.
If America experienced a widespread political uprising today, it would bear little resemblance to Lexington and Concord in 1775, with well-disciplined minutemen assembling on the town square to defend liberty against the redcoats. It would more likely be a larger scale reenactment of the "Bleeding Kansas" revolt of 1854 to 1861, when small bands of armed zealots unleashed an orgy of inter-communal violence, unbounded by any laws of war or human decency.
There is, we all know, a Second Amendment right to gun ownership. Under our constitutional form of government, the Supreme Court has the authority to decide what the Constitution means, and after decades of judicial ambiguity, in District of Columbia v. Heller a majority of the justices found an individual right to gun ownership, unrelated to membership in a state militia. But the Heller decision also makes it clear that this is not an unlimited right, and that it may be subject to extensive government regulation.
A citizen uprising today would probably not involve like-minded constitutionalists taking up arms to defend democracy and liberty.
However, in recent years, the belief in widespread gun ownership as a defense against tyrannical government has become an alluring idea, gaining traction with members of Congress as well as fringe conspiracy theorists. As Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma put it just last week, "The Second Amendment wasn't written so you can go hunting, it was to create a force to balance a tyrannical force here." And if this is insufficiently incendiary, one only need look to the doctrine of the "Three Percenters," with its ominous warning that "all politics in this country now is just dress rehearsal for civil war."
It is easy to ridicule such rhetoric as just overindulgence in Red Dawn fantasies about resourceful and brave citizens resisting a modern army with nothing more than small arms and their wits. Even individual Americans armed with military-style assault rifles could hardly pose any serious resistance to any future tyrannical central government supported by overwhelmingly powerful military capabilities. But many otherwise sensible people seem willing to concede that gun ownership could one day play some role in preserving democracy. Just this month, a Rasmussen poll reported that 65 percent of Americans see gun rights as a protection against tyranny.
There are two primary pillars to this shaky intellectual edifice. The first is a cottage industry of academics and lawyers who have scoured ancient political tracts and common law to establish that in the distant English past that there was a constitutional right to bear arms as a defense against tyranny. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has given some credence to this view: In his majority opinion for Heller, he asserted that "the Stuart Kings Charles II and James II succeeded in using select militias loyal to them to suppress political dissidents, in part by disarming their opponents." This line of reasoning ignores the fact that, in 21st century America, the prospect of monarchs and their select militias oppressing the populace is reasonably remote. It also ignores the fact that the common law evolves and is subordinate to acts of the legislature. Other nations built on English common law have all enacted strict regulation of gun ownership, with no perceptible diminution of political liberties.
The second pillar has fewer scholarly pretensions, but it employs even more historically dubious arguments. It suggests, for example, that the Holocaust could have been avoided if Germany's miniscule Jewish population had been better armed. It also argues that Ukrainian peasants could have defeated the Stalinist regime, backed by the NKVD and the Red Army, if they had possessed individual firearms. But these counterfactual interpretations of history are wildly speculative -- and downright implausible.
To understand how misguided these kinds of arguments truly are, it's best to begin where their adherents generally do: the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Any comparison between the American revolutionaries and today's would-be freedom fighters is seriously flawed. Eighteenth century colonial society was dramatically less organized than 21st century America. The Minutemen and other colonial militias were formed by farmers and tradesmen who possessed individual firearms. But they were organized into disciplined companies under the authority of the Massachusetts Provisional Congress, the successor to a legally established provincial assembly. Even though the British had abrogated its charter, the structure of the assembly still remained.
In other words, when these militias assembled in Lexington and Concord to resist British troops, they were subject to formal lines of command and control under a legitimate authority, and they had the broad support of their political communities. Colonial Massachusetts also enjoyed a degree of social cohesion and agreement on basic political principles far greater than we have in 21st century America.