Vox Answers the Gun Question that Nobody Asked

The “Second Amendment as tyrant-killer” argument gets the explainer journalism treatment.

By Nathan Pippenger

Tagged 2nd amendmentConstitutionGuns

Earlier this year, Cliven Bundy and four of his associates were indicted for their role in 2014’s armed standoff with federal officials, which stemmed from Bundy’s refusal to pay fines or remove his cattle from federal lands. As the Times summarizes, the indictment accuses Bundy of “launching a ‘massive armed assault’ on federal officials,” spreading misinformation in order to attract more followers to his cause, and encouraging his allies “to take sniper positions on highway bridges above government agents, unarmed adults and children.” At the height of the standoff, Bundy was the subject of regular attention on Fox News, the momentary darling of at least two U.S. Senators, and an icon to conservatives who saw his case as a stand against tyranny.

As they began to realize he was not an ideal representative of principled, armed opposition to overweening government, some of Bundy’s champions who reside slightly closer to the respectable mainstream of conservative politics started to distance themselves. But their search for a better champion is unlikely to go well, since it turns out that it’s hard to articulate that view without alarming people. Most iterations of it come out sounding like Donald Trump’s recent remark: “Hillary wants to abolish—essentially abolish the Second Amendment. By the way, if she gets to pick, if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”

A new piece in Vox seems to conclude that since present-day spokespeople for armed resistance to the government are so unpalatable, it’s better to shift the focus from the statements themselves to the principle behind them. An essay by David Kopel opens:

Do people have a right to defend themselves against a tyrannical government? And does the Second Amendment reinforce that right? Donald Trump appeared to be referring to such a right recently, in his muddled comments about ‘Second Amendment people.’ But trying to discern the thinking behind Trump’s thoughtless blather is pointless. Instead, it’s better to consider the guidance of the Constitution and the founders.

The piece begins by recasting a specific, controversial question (Is it safe or realistic to invoke the Second Amendment as a protection against tyranny?) as a general uncontroversial one (Do people have the right to resist tyrants?). It deems consideration of Trump’s remarks on the matter “pointless” even while vaguely normalizing them via an implausible connection to eighteenth century reflections on the right to resistance. This previews the seesaw quality of the ensuing argument, which occasionally feints in the direction of dismissing Second Amendment vigilantes—Kopel calls them “hotheads,” stressing that armed opposition to centralized tyranny was always reserved for lower levels of government, not for private citizens—while also indulging the weirder aspects of their worldview.

This becomes even stranger in light of the essay’s putative purpose, which is to say “not so fast!” to liberals whose eyes roll when wild-eyed warnings of tyranny are used as justification for the stockpiling of dangerous weapons. Titled “Why the anti-tyranny case for the 2nd Amendment shouldn’t be dismissed so quickly,” it nonetheless largely ignores liberal dismissiveness—which is directed against those private individuals who see every policy argument as an apocalyptic, potentially violent showdown between freedom and tyranny—retreating instead to a recounting of historical debates. Except, that is, when it veers back into contemporary politics:

Today’s world is different from 1791. The genocides of the last century show that a criminal government is even more dangerous than the founders thought. The US military — along with the federal government — has grown more powerful than the founders could have imagined. Yet global military history since 1791 repeatedly demonstrates that mighty armies can be defeated by citizens fighting for the consent of the governed.

So: twentieth century genocides show that criminal governments are now more dangerous than the eighteenth century mind ever contemplated, and our own federal government and military are likewise “more powerful than the founders could have imagined.” This seems to raise the question of whether local resistance from state militias would be an effective check against tyranny today. Kopel confidently answers in the affirmative: “military history since 1791 repeatedly demonstrates that mighty armies can be defeated by citizens fighting for the consent of the governed.” Does it bear noting that local resistance was not the force that defeated the twentieth century’s fascist or totalitarian states? Does Vox have a World War II explainer? (Answer: yes.) Kopel goes on:

Today, some people worry that Donald Trump resembles Hugo Chavez and other fascists. Other people, such as National Review’s Jonah Goldberg in his book Liberal Fascism, describe the similarity of Woodrow Wilson’s nationalist and quasi-socialist programs to those of Mussolini. Goldberg argues that Hillary Clinton would amplify a century-long slide of the American left towards a mild, Americanized version of fascism. The rhetoric and records of Trump and Clinton are not exactly scrupulous about respect for the Constitution, or any other law.

In other words: both sides do it. “Some people worry” that Trump, a political unknown whose candidacy is a narcissistic publicity stunt fueled by bellicose racist demagoguery, might turn out to lack legal scruples as President. But “other people” worry that a long-serving politician from the center-left Democratic mainstream could turn out to be just as bad. It’s a toss-up!

When you consider the question driving this piece in light of present-day political realities, it’s clear that there is one potential scenario in which “the anti-tyranny case for the 2nd Amendment” is certain to be invoked: a Clinton victory. This is an absolute guarantee: No matter how moderate a policy agenda Clinton pursues, its loudest opposition will come from individuals asserting their natural right to oppose the Democratic (and democratically-chosen) tyrant. In the hypothetical scenario that concerns Kopel (“should tyranny ever triumph”), resistance comes in the form of “states leading their militias.” If things ever get that bad, then this remedy, and the arguments supporting it, might once again become relevant to our actual circumstances, rather than muddling an examination of the current political discourse we actually have. If Vox wants people not to dismiss the pro-gun voices in that discourse so quickly, they should commission a piece that will make their argument head-on.

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Nathan Pippenger is a contributing editor at Democracy. Follow him on Twitter at @NathanPip.

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