THE RIGHT TO REVOLT: Gun Rights, Political Conflict, & Social Resilience
By Adam Simpson
Americans and their guns. It’s a combination discussed around the world, especially in “developed countries.” Anti-gun control activists have myriad ways of explaining their preference for maintaining a robust “right to bear arms.” Typically there’s a narrative to set the backdrop for guns in America: that it’s history is based in the inherent dangers of the American frontier and the colonists’ self-defense against the tyrannical King George III. Public access to firearms once liberated the United States from authoritarian rule, hence our forefathers saw fit to preserve the right to bear arms. It’s a nice story, but like all historical narratives it tends to whitewash the less savory aspects. To name a few, the narrative ignores the role of firearms in empowering slave owners to protect their human property and enabling the indigenous slaughter that went along with America’s “manifest destiny.” Beyond this partial narrative however is the underlying notion that private gun ownership protects democracy, that in the event that a tyrant enters the White House armed Americans will be able to resist and overthrow said tyrant. This argument is just the worst.
The argument that owning a semi-automatic assault rifle—a rifle used by shooters in Orlando, San Bernardino, Sandy Hook, and Aurora—could protect Americans from the full might and fury of the US military is simultaneously absurd and grotesque, while revealing fundamental problems in American social resilience.
It’s absurd to play keeping up with the Joneses when it comes to armaments and the American military. M1 Abrams tanks with flechette rounds, Reaper drones, and Apache helicopters armed with hellfire missiles are only the beginning of a list of the most lethal weapons at the US military’s disposal. We probably wouldn’t feel safe at night if our neighbor explained to us that he had a hellfire missile in his garage “just in case” the government ever needed a little bit of over throwing. That’s because most reasonable people draw the line in one place or another on private ownership of arms. 57% (+/-4%) of Americans favor a ban on assault weapons. Despite a lack of polling data, I’d confidently say that 99% of Americans favor a ban on private ownership of weapons of mass destruction. No matter the number of AR-15s sold, there will be an enormous qualitative gap between the weapons possessed by the US government and those possessed by the citizenry.
Therefore it makes sense to conclude that the hypothetical Second American Civil War would be asymmetric in nature, similar to the kind of wars that the United States has fought in the Middle East against non-state actors. Could an asymmetric campaign against the US government succeed? Maybe, maybe not. Between those wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the US military is well-experienced with counterinsurgency, and unlike Iraq and Afghanistan, a civil war is not one you can leave—it’s existential by nature. All that being said, fifteen years later the United States still has 9,800 soldiers in Afghanistan. Keep in mind that’s a country whose territory our soldiers don’t know, whose language our soldiers don’t speak, and whose customs our soldiers don’t relate to.
In any event, when there comes such a time, proud American patriots will retreat to the hills or the mountains to plan ambushes on police, assassinations on high value government targets, and probably construct IEDs to use on American soldiers (#SupportOurTroops, though). The Federalist’s John Daniel Davidson suspects that the Second Civil War would likely result from a divided government that faces off against a military coup d’etat while a populace that is just as divided as the state institutions is caught in the middle. Davidson advises you possess a weapon so that you might pick a side. It’s a nightmarish scenario: 21st century total war between Americans. But whether total war or asymmetric conflict, these hypotheses boil down to grotesque fantasies whereby Americans kill each other over politics, ideology, and other differences.
Writing for the Independent Journal Review, Kurt Schlicter states, “The liberal anti-gun narrative is not aimed at creating the best public policy but at disarming citizens the liberal elite looks down upon–and for whom weapons represent their last-ditch ability to respond to liberal overreach.” This seems to me indicative of the underlying premise of anti-gun control argument: that violence is an acceptable form of political resistance—even in a democracy. Shouldn’t the “last-ditch ability to respond to liberal overreach” be the Supreme Court?
Protecting the country from unaccountable leaders is a cause we can all agree on. However, the amount of energy that goes into preserving the right to civil war dwarfs those efforts to actually inoculate the political system to abuses of power or restore the power of the public. Imagine if all of this anti/pro-gun control energy were focused on government transparency initiatives, anti-gerrymandering campaigns, term limits, or campaign finance reform. As it stands now, the issue greatly invigorates the right, while only partially energizing the left—often after this or that calamity.
Ultimately the insistence on the “right to a revolution” concerns me because it belies a deep seated disillusionment with the government and a preference for authoritarian leadership—both of which seem to be on the ascent for in the United States, particularly but not exclusively for the American right. Restoring faith in the legitimacy of American democracy, it seems to me, is the primary obstacle to a sensible conversation about the role of guns in society. Winning greater legal restrictions on the sale of guns may feel like a victory in the near term, but in the long run I wonder what further advances in 3d printing has on the debate—my sense is that it makes it moot, and the argument becomes more about culture than about laws.