Second Amendment Refresher

Summary: Both left and right could use a second amendment refresher about armed citizens. Commentary by A. Barton Hinkle, 26 June 2009, Richmond Times-Dispatch.

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“There is always the danger that those inclined toward violence will incorporate it into their twisted worldview,” writes Bob Herbert of The New York Times in a recent column about right-wing extremism. Herbert has joined a chorus of liberal commentators who see a connection between (a) incidents such as the murder of abortion doctor George Tiller and James von Brunn’s attack at the Holocaust Museum and (b) the anti-government rhetoric issuing from conservative sources such as the National Rifle Association, talk-show host Glenn Beck, and U.S. Rep. Michele Bachmann.

Many liberal commentators currently contend that conservatives had better watch what they say, lest they inadvertently incite the wackos among us. Herbert, for instance, particularly disturbed by a new book that refers to a 1991 law-review article, “The Second Amendment Ain’t About Hunting,” expressing the notion that the right to bear arms was included in the Bill of Rights as a last resort against “the tyranny of our own government.”

He’s not alone. Josh Horwitz, executive director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, has penned an entire tome about the pernicious pervasiveness of this “insurrectionist idea,” as he calls it — the notion that Americans have a right to defend their liberties by any means necessary, including armed violence if it comes to that. Why, even the justices in the Supreme Court’s Heller case who acknowledged an individual right to own firearms are sympathetic to such a notion, Horwitz laments. (Imagine!)

Let’s stipulate that you can find no end of over-the-top rhetoric about impending tyranny on the political right — just as you can on the political left. Not that long ago progressives were approvingly passing around Naomi Wolf’s essay, “Fascist America in 10 Easy Steps,” which made much of the supposedly ominous parallels between things done by George W. Bush and things done by famous fascists throughout history. Now it’s conservatives’ turn to point out the supposedly ominous parallels between the Obama administration’s policies and textbook socialism.

You can turn such facile analogies into a parlor game: The Nazis wore uniforms; the Boy Scouts wear uniforms; therefore, the Boy Scouts are just like the Nazis. (Nonsense.) On the other hand, some analogies are not so facile. Neither the Bush administration’s secret CIA prisons nor the Obama administration’s intervention in the automobile industry comport comfortably with the principles of liberal democratic capitalism.

On the question of the Second Amendment, both sides should refresh their acquaintance with Joseph Story’s Commentaries. Story, appointed to the Supreme Court by James Madison, observed that “the militia is the natural defence of a free country against sudden foreign invasions, domestic insurrections, and domestic usurpations of power by rulers.” In other words, armed citizens might just as easily put down a rebellion against the United States as start one. In fact, the Militia Act of 1792 expressly authorized the president to call out a state militia “whenever the laws of the United States shall be opposed or the execution thereof obstructed, in any state, by combinations too powerful to be suppressed by the ordinary course of judicial proceedings.”

Still, it’s clear the Founders also embraced the notion that armed citizens might one day use force to throw off the yoke of domestic tyranny. This shouldn’t really come as a shock, given that the Founders were armed revolutionaries who had done precisely that. Yet some liberals seem horrified to hear conservatives bring the point up. The clear implication seems to be that violence in the pursuit of political and social goals ought to be anathema.

And that is a bit rich. Because the project of contemporary liberalism for the past several decades has been to expand the scope of coercive government power — which is, after all, predicated on violence.

Elaborate democratic procedures can lend it legitimacy, but at day’s end the defining characteristic of government is its monopoly on the justifiable initiation of force. Peaceful noncompliance is not an option. It was not an option for Mildred and Richard Loving, for example, who were set upon in their home by armed lawmen because they peacefully declined to observe Virginia’s democratically enacted anti-miscegenation statutes. It is no more an option today.

If, for example, Washington decides that every American shall join a health insurance program, then those who disagree cannot merely reply, like Bartleby the Scrivener, “I would prefer not to.” Anyone who tries will face sanction, such as a tax penalty. If they respectfully decline to pay the penalty, then eventually men with guns will come for them. If they resist arrest, then the lawmen will be justified in using force, including deadly force, to make them comply .

Liberals are right to worry that some Americans seem to find violence in pursuit of political ends perfectly acceptable. They also might want to ask themselves where those Americans ever got that idea.

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