Great Gun Gobbledygook: The Paradox of Second Amendment Hardliners

Conservatives say armed citizens are an essential guard against government tyranny. They also support massive military spending. How is that supposed to work?


Matt Sullivan/Reuters

In the current debate over gun control, the pro-gun lobby has an ace card up its sleeve: We need weapons to prevent government tyranny, they say. These self-styled champions of liberty see guns as the ultimate insurance policy to protect the Constitution. The problem is that most of those making this argument also strongly support a massive U.S. military -- exactly the behemoth we must be armed against. It's the great gun gobbledygook.

Consider Marco Rubio. The senator just threatened to filibuster any gun-control legislation because the Second Amendment "speaks to history's lesson that government cannot be in all places at all times, and history's warning about the oppression of a government that tries."

The specter of government despotism looms so large our only salvation lies with a nation of armed watchmen.

But curiously, Rubio also strongly supports beefing up government power by creating a vast military establishment. In 2012, he described defense cuts as "catastrophic" because "history has proven that the stronger the U.S. military is, the more peaceful the world becomes." According to Politico, in a recent speech at the University of Louisville, "Rubio made the case for American military might around the world."

Wait a sec, won't American military might mean a government that's in more places at more times? Isn't this precisely the terrifying prospect we must arm ourselves against?

Or take Sarah Palin. As governor of Alaska, she signed an amicus brief that claimed: "The Framers were understandably wary of standing armies and the powers of a potentially oppressive government." The Second Amendment provides for "a citizenry capable of defending its rights by force, when all other means have failed, against any future oppression." Last February, Palin even suggested that the federal government is "stockpiling bullets in case of civil unrest."

But where did these bullets come from? They came from champions of a strong military -- like Sarah Palin. She believes in fiscal conservatism, but with a clear exception for defense. "We must make sure, however, that we do nothing to undermine the effectiveness of our military." To diminish the government's standing army is to "risk losing all that makes America great!"

It's almost like George Washington grasping his musket as a defense of liberty -- while also seeking extra funding for the British redcoats.

When conservatives take up armed resistance against D.C. despotism, they'll really regret some of the toys they gave the government. Rubio and Palin want the populace to be able to arm itself with assault rifles. But they want the government armed with F-35s -- a $100 million-plus stealth plane with a top speed of Mach 1.6. When President Obama discovers his inner tyrant, it won't be a fair fight.

Of course, the American people can always play the Red Dawn card and launch an insurgency. But guerrillas usually need external support to win. Britain could be an option as an ally, except that, last summer, Mitt Romney insulted London's preparations for the Olympics.

Why the contradiction? Conservatives don't think of the military as part of the government. On the one hand, you have the shadowy Obama state, the inefficient Leviathan, the Feds, the black helicopters, or just "them." And on the other hand, you have the military, the righteous guardians of the nation.

But of course, the military is the government, subject to the same waste and inefficiency as any other part of Washington, D.C.

Conservatives say that a weaponized citizenry is a necessary shield against dictatorship. I'll take the argument more seriously if conservatives stop arming this tyrant to the teeth.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Dominic Tierney is a correspondent for The Atlantic and an associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College. He is the author of How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War. More

Dominic Tierney is associate professor of political science at Swarthmore College, and a senior fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. He completed his PhD in international politics at Oxford University and has held fellowships at the Mershon Center at Ohio State University, the Olin Institute at Harvard University, and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.

He is the author of Failing to Win: Perceptions of Victory and Defeat in International Politics (Harvard University Press, 2006), with Dominic Johnson, which won the International Studies Association award for the best book published in 2006, and FDR and the Spanish Civil War: Neutrality and Commitment in the Struggle that Divided America (Duke University Press, 2007).

His latest book is How We Fight: Crusades, Quagmires, and the American Way of War (Little, Brown 2010), which Ambassador James Dobbins, former Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, described as "A great theme, beautifully written and compellingly organized, it's a fitting update to Russell Weigley's classic [The American Way of War] and an important contribution to a national debate over the war in Afghanistan which is only gathering steam." (More on Facebook.)

Dominic's work has also appeared in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times,, and on NPR.
Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Sad Desk Lunch: Is This How You Want to Die?

How to avoid working through lunch, and diseases related to social isolation.

Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus


Where Time Comes From

The clocks that coordinate your cellphone, GPS, and more


Computer Vision Syndrome and You

Save your eyes. Take breaks.


What Happens in 60 Seconds

Quantifying human activity around the world



More in Politics

From This Author

Just In