The Gun-Rights Movement Fed America’s Insurrectionist Fever Dreams

An illustration of a firearm and a Trump 2020 flag.
Shutterstock / The Atlantic

Much of the blame for last week’s horrific assault on the Capitol lies with the president and his allies; that much is clear. But another force in society has done more than its part, inculcating insurrectionist fantasies in the American mind for decades: the gun-rights movement.

Since the 1990s, the idea that Americans would need to band together and violently overthrow the government has been the key to establishing and expanding the market for guns. It has also been used to justify citizens’ right to march around in public with assault rifles slung casually over a shoulder or hoisted high at angry protests. The argument for self-defense only goes so far, you see. If people want a gun to defend themselves and their family, then handguns will do—and preferably small ones, which you can easily store or conceal, so as not to invite aggression. And a self-defense argument largely limits guns to the household; that’s where you would be most intent on protecting your family, after all. This was not good enough for gun manufacturers eager to sell absurdly powerful firearms, such as semiautomatic rifles, which are properly at home on the battlefield.

After the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary, when a man slaughtered first graders with a semiautomatic rifle, the stage seemed set for an assault-rifle ban. The public-health case against them was strong: Semiautomatic rifles are designed to kill lots of people in a matter of seconds. They have no place in civil society.

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But gun-rights advocates were busy making gun ownership about something else entirely: freedom—specifically freedom from incipient tyranny. If you, or we, are faced with looming autocratic rule and the destruction of our fundamental liberties, then public safety is hardly a concern. Weeks after the Sandy Hook shooting, National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre told Congress that our Founders enshrined the right to bear arms in the Constitution because “they had lived under the tyranny of King George and they wanted to make sure that these free people in this new country would never be subjugated again.” Larry Pratt of Gun Owners of America was more blunt: “Our guns are in our hands for people like those in government right now that think they wanna go tyrannical on us, we’ve got something for ‘em.”

Conservative commentators echoed them. Andrew Napolitano, for example, quickly dismissed public-health and practical concerns over assault rifles: “Today, the limitations on the power and precision of the guns we can lawfully own … [assures] that a tyrant can more easily disarm and overcome us. The historical reality of the Second Amendment’s protection of the right to keep and bear arms is not that it protects the right to shoot deer. It protects the right to shoot tyrants, and it protects the right to shoot at them effectively, with the same instruments they would use upon us.”

With arguments like these, the gun-rights movement cleared the path for insurrection. It blew a hole in the rule of law—and Donald Trump’s would-be soldiers clamored through it. And then scaled the walls of Congress.

Politicians, ironically, have played up the insurrectionist argument for guns, in part because it’s what the ardent pro-gun voting bloc, having been primed by the NRA and its allies, wants to hear—and it drives them reliably to the polls. Soon after Sandy Hook, Senator Tom Coburn echoed Napolitano, saying the purpose of the Second Amendment was to “create a force to balance tyrannical force.” On its face, this sounds preposterous: How can armed citizens—even with assault rifles—“balance” our government should it lapse tyrannical? The U.S. government has tanks and drones and missiles at its disposal, after all.

Gun-rights extremists are hardly cowed by the prospect of facing the U.S. military. A popular essay that made the rounds in gun-rights circles a few years back is titled “Armed Revolution Possible, Not So Difficult.” Where on earth did the author—Bill Bridgewater, the former director of the National Alliance of Stocking Gun Dealers—get this preposterous notion? From the Vietnam War. Bridgewater contends that the North Vietnamese demonstrated how ordinary citizens with little more than assault rifles could topple the world’s most sophisticated army. Never mind the fact that the U.S. lost the war for many complex reasons; for their efforts, the North Vietnamese endured immense suffering.

America’s suburban guerillas have conveniently overlooked the horror that could ensue from armed insurrection. When you inhabit a lawful society, and police and soldiers are constrained by the law—and you are white—it is easy to yell at them threateningly, wave guns in their face, and not fear mortal danger. It is easy, under those circumstances, to be “brave” and call for rebellion (an American tradition), not thinking through what you really ask for.

What our armed insurrectionists ask for—what they have unwittingly sown—is destruction of the rule of law. This is of course deeply ironic, since gun-rights advocates insist that they represent, and bolster, law and order. They’ve never understood that men with assault rifles slung over camouflaged shoulders are the avatar of lawlessness.

Gun-rights extremists have thus lived in a fantasy world of looming insurrection, which politicians have happily cultivated when it has suited them. But such rhetoric is not idle; it is not without cost—as we saw last week. We are now learning that many who rampaged through the Capitol belong to radical gun-rights groups, and were motivated by longtime warnings of tyranny.

This year has revealed all too well what insurrectionist fever dreams bring: In the spring, they delivered mobs who occupied state capitols and threatened legislators; in the summer, they led to dead protesters in Kenosha, Wisconsin, and Portland, Oregon; now they have wrought death and destruction in Congress. The gun-rights movement deserves a reckoning for this. Our leaders should do everything in their power to enact laws that ensure peaceful protest. We must ban assault rifles and open carry. Their legality is premised on ideas that are inimical to democracy itself.