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

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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.

I think law-abiding Americans should always be allowed to own guns.

But if you're a conservative gun owner who worries that gun control today could make tyranny easier to impose tomorrow, and you support warrantless spying, indefinite detention, and secret drone strikes on Americans accused of terrorism, what explains your seeming schizophrenia?

Think of it this way.

If you were a malign leader intent on imposing tyranny, what would you find more useful, banning high-capacity magazines... or a vast archive of the bank records, phone calls, texts and emails of millions of citizens that you could access in secret? Would you, as a malign leader, feel more empowered by a background check requirement on gun purchases... or the ability to legally kill anyone in secret on your say so alone? The powers the Republican Party has given to the presidency since 9/11 would obviously enable far more grave abuses in the hands of a would be tyrant than any gun control legislation with even a miniscule chance of passing Congress. So why are so many liberty-invoking 2nd Amendment absolutists reliable Republican voters, as if the GOP's stance on that issue somehow makes up for its shortcomings? And why do they so seldom speak up about threats to the Bill of Rights that don't involve guns?  

In the National Review piece I quoted at the beginning of this article, Kevin Williamson approvingly quotes "the words of Supreme Court justice Joseph Story -- who was, it bears noting, appointed to the Court by the guy who wrote the Constitution." Here's the quoted passage:

The importance of this article will scarcely be doubted by any persons, who have duly reflected upon the subject. The militia is the natural defence of a free country against sudden foreign invasions, domestic insurrections, and domestic usurpations of power by rulers. It is against sound policy for a free people to keep up large military establishments and standing armies in time of peace, both from the enormous expenses, with which they are attended, and the facile means, which they afford to ambitious and unprincipled rulers, to subvert the government, or trample upon the rights of the people. The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered, as the palladium of the liberties of a republic; since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers; and will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them.

Conservatives love to invoke passages like that while defending a broad individual right to bear arms. Do they ever notice that its third sentence says, "It is against sound policy for a free people to keep up large military establishments and standing armies in time of peace"? They love to invoke Madison. They are seldom if ever guided by his warning to the Constitutional Convention:

In time of actual war, great discretionary powers are constantly given to the Executive Magistrate. Constant apprehension of War has the same tendency to render the head too large for the body. A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defence against foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war, whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the people.    

The conservative movement may be right or wrong about any number of things, but it doesn't agree with Joseph Story or James Madison when it comes to the best way to safeguard liberty.

It's time to admit as much.

I believe in an individual right to bear arms, and I have no problem with Americans who advocate on behalf of that right. If the feds start rounding up innocents to slaughter I have no problem with an armed citizenry fighting back. But folks who want to guard against a tyrannical government are foolish to focus on the 2nd Amendment while abandoning numerous other rights for fear of terrorism. The right to bear arms is the costliest liberty we have, in terms of innocent lives lost as an unintended byproduct; it is very unlikely to be exercised against the U.S. government in the foreseeable future; and its benefits are less important to securing liberty than habeus corpus and due process, as the experience of other free peoples demonstrates. I understand why people advocate on behalf of the right to bear arms, despite the costs; I don't understand why so many behave as if it is the most important safeguard against tyranny to maintain.

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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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