The Strangest Conservative Priority: Prepping a '2nd Amendment Solution'

The Bill of Rights offers much smarter, more effective ways to safeguard liberty than preparing for armed insurrection.

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In the National Review, Kevin Williamson argues that nearly everyone calling for gun control either doesn't understand or refuses to address the actual purpose of the 2nd Amendment. They talk, he says, as if there's no legitimate reason for an American to have military grade weapons, as if the 2nd Amendment protects mere hunting and home security. "The purpose of having citizens armed with paramilitary weapons is to allow them to engage in paramilitary actions," Williamson writes. "There is no legitimate exception to the Second Amendment for military-style weapons, because military-style weapons are precisely what the Second Amendment guarantees our right to keep and bear. The purpose of the Second Amendment is to secure our ability to oppose enemies foreign and domestic, a guarantee against disorder and tyranny."

Walter E. Williams makes a similar argument in a Townhall column. "There have been people who've ridiculed the protections afforded by the Second Amendment, asking what chance would citizens have against the military might of the U.S. government," he writes. "Military might isn't always the deciding factor. Our 1776 War of Independence was against the mightiest nation on the face of the earth -- Great Britain. In Syria, the rebels are making life uncomfortable for the much-better-equipped Syrian regime. Today's Americans are vastly better-armed than our founders, Warsaw Ghetto Jews and Syrian rebels. There are about 300 million privately held firearms owned by Americans. That's nothing to sneeze at. And notice that the people who support gun control are the very people who want to control and dictate our lives."

What do I think about this relatively common argument within the conservative movement? For now, I'll refrain from answering. If you're looking for considered objections, read Matt Steinglass in The Economist. In this item, we're going to proceed as if the arguments above are correct -- that there is a real danger of the U.S. government growing tyrannical; that the people must preserve checks on its power; and that the Framers best understood how to do so.

I respect that general reasoning.

What I can't respect are the conservatives who invoke it during political battles over gun control, even as they ignore or actively oppose so many other important attempts to safeguard liberty.

Their inconsistency is incoherent.

Let me explain at greater length what I mean.

Even if we presume that the 2nd Amendment exists partly so that citizens can rise up if the government gets tyrannical, it is undeniable that the Framers built other safeguards into the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to prevent things from ever getting so bad as to warrant an insurrection. Federalism was one such safeguard; the separation of powers into three branches was another; and the balance of the Bill of Rights was the last of the major safeguards.

If a "2nd Amendment solution" is ever warranted, it'll mean our system already failed in numerous ways; that "solution" is also easily the most costly and dangerous of the safeguards we have.

It would probably mean another Civil War.

Yet the conservative movement is only reliable when it defends the 2nd Amendment. Otherwise, it is an inconsistent advocate for safeguarding liberty. Conservatives pay occasional lip service to federalism, but are generally hypocrites on the subject, voting for bills like No Child Left Behind, supporting a federally administered War on Drugs, and advocating for federal legislation on marriage. (Texas governor Rick Perry is the quintessential hypocrite on this subject).

And on the Bill of Rights, the conservative movement is far worse. Throughout the War on Terrorism, organizations like the ACLU and the Center of Constitutional Rights have reliably objected to Bush/Cheney/Obama policies, including warrantless spying on innocent Americans, indefinite detention without charges or trial, and the extrajudicial assassination of Americans. The Nation and Mother Jones reliably admit that the executive power claims made by Bush/Yoo/Obama/Koh exceed Madisonian limits and prudence informed by common sense.

Meanwhile, on the right, The Heritage Foundation, National Review, The Weekly Standard, and sundry others are more often than not active cheerleaders for those very same War on Terror policies. Due process? Warrants? Congressional oversight? You must have a pre-9/11 mindset.  

It's one thing to argue that gun control legislation is a nonstarter, despite tens of thousands of deaths by gunshot per year, because the safeguards articulated in the Bill of Rights are sacrosanct. I can respect that... but not from people who simultaneously insist that 3,000 dead in a terrorist attack justifies departing from the plain text of the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eighth amendments, and giving the president de-facto power to declare war without Congressional approval.

The conservative movement has a broad, textualist reading of the 2nd Amendment... and nothing else.  

I don't understand a subset of the rank-and-file either.

If you're a gun owner who worries that gun control today could make tyranny easier to impose tomorrow, I get that, and if you worry about federal excesses generally, I have no argument with you.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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