History is rarely that clear, however, and the notion of personal gun possession as a right is also deeply rooted in American history. UCLA Law Professor Adam Winkler, author of the forthcoming Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America, notes that since before the Amendment was proposed, many citizens have discussed the right to bear arms as a guarantee against tyranny as well as a feature of a federal system. Indeed, Winkler's reading of the history finds more support for this anti-tyranny idea than for the Supreme Court's current doctrine that the Second Amendment supports a right of personal self-defense. But the protection against tyranny was a long-term structural guarantee, not a privilege of individual nullification, he says. "I don't think there's any support for the idea that government officials should be afraid of being shot."
It would be odd indeed if the Framers of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights had written an amendment designed to give individuals the right to liquidate the government they were setting up. In fact, having been through a revolution, they had few illusions about the virtues of violence. When they gathered in Philadelphia in 1787, the original Framers were very aware that armed bands of farmers in Massachusetts had revolted against the state government only a few months earlier. Washington, in particular, found the news of Daniel Shays's rebellion in that state so disturbing that it contributed to his decision to come out of retirement and help frame a new national charter to prevent such outbreaks.
At Philadelphia, Gouverneur Morrison of Pennsylvania warned the delegates that failure would precipitate new outbreaks of rebellion. "The scenes of horror attending civil commotion can not be described, and the conclusion of them will be worse than the term of their continuance," he said. "The stronger party will then make traitors of the weaker; and the gallows & halter will finish the work of the sword."
After becoming President, Washington himself led a national army into Western Pennsylvania to suppress a rebellion against the new federal tax on whiskey. (This is the only time in American history a President has served as Commander-in-Chief in the field.) In a subsequent message to Congress, he showed precious little sympathy for "Second Amendment remedies":
[T]o yield to the treasonable fury of so small a portion of the United States, would be to violate the fundamental principle of our constitution, which enjoins that the will of the majority shall prevail. . . . [S]ucceeding intelligence has tended to manifest the necessity of what has been done; it being now confessed by those who were not inclined to exaggerate the ill-conduct of the insurgents, that their malevolence was not pointed merely to a particular law; but that a spirit, inimical to all order, has actuated many of the offenders.
In 2011, there is abroad in the land "a spirit, inimical to all order," particularly if that order concerns federally guaranteed environmental protection, economic regulation, or civil rights. Voices from the far-right are trying to plant a parasitic meme in our Bill of Rights: that America is not a self-government republic, but a dark Hobbesian plane where each "sovereign citizen" chooses what laws to obey, and any census taker or federal law-enforcement agent had better beware. The long-term result of such a "right to bear arms" would be an ungovernable state of nature, where life, both civic and individual, would be solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.