The notion that an individual right to bear arms guarantees the American people against government tyranny is of course an old one. Given its apparent validation in the Second Amendment of the Constitution itself, it’s not surprising that the notion has survived in some way through to the 21st century. Given its defiance of history and common sense, though, what should be surprising is that it’s survived to remain so widespread.
If America experienced a widespread political uprising today, it would bear little resemblance to Lexington and Concord in 1775, with well-disciplined minutemen assembling on the town square to defend liberty against the redcoats. It would more likely be a larger scale reenactment of the “Bleeding Kansas” revolt of 1854 to 1861, when small bands of armed zealots unleashed an orgy of inter-communal violence, unbounded by any laws of war or human decency.
There is, we all know, a Second Amendment right to gun ownership. Under our constitutional form of government, the Supreme Court has the authority to decide what the Constitution means, and after decades of judicial ambiguity, in District of Columbia v. Heller a majority of the justices found an individual right to gun ownership, unrelated to membership in a state militia. But the Heller decision also makes it clear that this is not an unlimited right, and that it may be subject to extensive government regulation.
However, in recent years, the belief in widespread gun ownership as a defense against tyrannical government has become an alluring idea, gaining traction with members of Congress as well as fringe conspiracy theorists. As Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma put it just last week, “The Second Amendment wasn’t written so you can go hunting, it was to create a force to balance a tyrannical force here.” And if this is insufficiently incendiary, one only need look to the doctrine of the “Three Percenters,” with its ominous warning that “all politics in this country now is just dress rehearsal for civil war.”
It is easy to ridicule such rhetoric as just overindulgence inRed Dawn fantasies about resourceful and brave citizens resisting a modern army with nothing more than small arms and their wits. Even individual Americans armed with military-style assault rifles could hardly pose any serious resistance to any future tyrannical central government supported by overwhelmingly powerful military capabilities. But many otherwise sensible people seem willing to concede that gun ownership could one day play some role in preserving democracy. Just this month, a Rasmussen poll reported that 65 percent of Americans see gun rights as a protection against tyranny.
There are two primary pillars to this shaky intellectual edifice. The first is a cottage industry of academics and lawyers who have scoured ancient political tracts and common law to establish that in the distant English past that there was a constitutional right to bear arms as a defense against tyranny. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia has given some credence to this view: In his majority opinion for Heller, he asserted that “the Stuart Kings Charles II and James II succeeded in using select militias loyal to them to suppress political dissidents, in part by disarming their opponents.” This line of reasoning ignores the fact that, in 21st century America, the prospect of monarchs and their select militias oppressing the populace is reasonably remote. It also ignores the fact that the common law evolves and is subordinate to acts of the legislature. Other nations built on English common law have all enacted strict regulation of gun ownership, with no perceptible diminution of political liberties.
The second pillar has fewer scholarly pretensions, but it employs even more historically dubious arguments. It suggests, for example, that the Holocaust could have been avoided if Germany’s miniscule Jewish population had been better armed. It also argues that Ukrainian peasants could have defeated the Stalinist regime, backed by the NKVD and the Red Army, if they had possessed individual firearms. But these counterfactual interpretations of history are wildly speculative — and downright implausible.
To understand how misguided these kinds of arguments truly are, it’s best to begin where their adherents generally do: the Battle of Lexington and Concord. Any comparison between the American revolutionaries and today’s would-be freedom fighters is seriously flawed. Eighteenth century colonial society was dramatically less organized than 21st century America. The Minutemen and other colonial militias were formed by farmers and tradesmen who possessed individual firearms. But they were organized into disciplined companies under the authority of the Massachusetts Provisional Congress, the successor to a legally established provincial assembly. Even though the British had abrogated its charter, the structure of the assembly still remained.
In other words, when these militias assembled in Lexington and Concord to resist British troops, they were subject to formal lines of command and control under a legitimate authority, and they had the broad support of their political communities. Colonial Massachusetts also enjoyed a degree of social cohesion and agreement on basic political principles far greater than we have in 21st century America.
Despite the colonial victory at Concord, the Minutemen and other local militias played a minor role in the eventual American defeat of King George III. The decisive factors in America’s War of Independence were the battlefield victories of organized colonial armies acting under the authority of the Continental Congress and state-organized militias. The financial and military support of America’s European allies also played a crucial role.
Guerrilla warfare waged by small bands of partisans was not militarily important to America’s defense of its liberty. One possible exception was the partisan warfare against the British and their Tory allies in South and North Carolina. However, in the Southern theater, guerilla bands were often more dedicated to plunder and inflicting harm on their domestic enemies than fighting in conventional battles.
“Bloody Kansas” provides a valuable historical contrast. In 1854, Congress decided to overturn the Missouri Compromise and allow the territory of Kansas to decide by referendum whether it would enter the Union as a slave or a free state. New England abolitionists sponsored more than a thousand armed settlers, armed with weapons they called “Beecher’s Bibles,” to move to Kansas to support the “free state” movement. Thousands more free-state supporters moved from throughout the Midwest.
At the same time, several thousand armed pro-slavery settlers also moved into the territory. Very soon the contending factions had organized their own pro- and anti-slavery militias — “Border Ruffians” and “Jayhawks.” Both factions sought arms and munitions from out-of-state supporters. The result was widespread intimidation and terror as guerrillas plundered homesteads, sacked towns, and staged ambushes that led to robbery and murder.
After various minor skirmishes, in 1856 a group of the pro-slavery Border Ruffians assaulted the free-state stronghold of Lawrence. They burned the Free State Hotel to the ground, destroyed two anti-slavery newspapers, and ransacked the town.
In retaliation, the infamous abolitionist John Brown led an attack on a a pro-slavery settlement called Osawatomie Creek. There, his men seized seven settlers and proceeded to hack five of them to death with broadswords. This act of wanton violence was followed by more inter-communal violence, skirmishes, and battles — all of them committed by poorly disciplined armed bands that answered to no one.
The last outrage before the Civil War was the “Marais de Cygnes massacre” of 1858, where a band of Border Ruffians murdered five unarmed Free-Staters in cold blood. In a sparsely populated territory with a scant 8000 inhabitants , 56 people were murdered or killed in combat between armed gangs operating beyond the bounds of the law. And the sectional passions unleashed by this low-grade but lethal conflict contributed directly to the outbreak of the far deadlier Civil War. Just for a rough comparison, that would be equal to over 2 million fatalities if similar violence erupted in America today.
The history of the postbellum South offers another cautionary story of unregulated and extra-legal political violence. The founders of the Ku Klux Klan purported to be defending the rights of the white community against the tyranny of illegitimate Reconstruction governments, black enfranchisement, and federal military occupation. And for several years, the Klan used this rationale to carry out a gruesome campaign of systematic violence, murder, and political intimidation.
War, particularly civil war, is by its nature violent. Official state armies are not immune from the tendency to inflict unjustified violence on civilians. But in America today, this prospect is far more remote, and far less terrifying, than the notion of armed citizens striking out against a perceived enemy, answering to no authority other than their own individual prejudices and passions.
The constitutional government of the United States has never been perfect, but it has repeatedly corrected its mistakes and sometime tendencies to abridge the fundamental rights of its citizens. If this basic order and balance is ever imperiled, it will almost certainly be under circumstances of severe economic stress. And in such circumstances, tolerance and good faith trust in other Americans will likely be in short supply. Even today, numerous public figures routinely characterize their political opponents as enemies of American values. And a quick glance at the comments sections of websites around the Internet reveals that many people in this country already doubt the “Americanness” of their fellow citizens and the legitimacy of existing government institutions.
So a citizen uprising at any point in the foreseeable future would probably not involve like-minded constitutionalists taking up arms to defend democracy and liberty. It would more likely be a matter of one aggrieved social group attacking another. And for the most criminal and vicious members of society, the rationale of “protecting” their own rights would be a convenient justification for straight-up looting, robbery, and bloodshed.
There may never be a time when all the people in this country embrace one another as true Americans or accept the authority of their political leadership. Which may be part of the country’s boisterous — if sometimes overly enthusiastic and even paranoid — democratic tradition. But as we debate the role of firearms in our society, it makes no sense to be sidetracked by the impossible and dangerous idea that a heavily armed citizenry is the ultimate safeguard of liberty in America.