The Second Amendment Shouldn't Be About Tyranny

I’ve been thinking about the Second Amendment more and more lately.  As the cost of our interpretation of the amendment – in heartbreak and blood – grows higher, we seem to feel the need to assign it more and more apocalyptic importance.  It’s not for securing property but for protecting against an overwhelming wave of criminals. It’s not for arming a militia, but for protection against iron-fisted tyranny.  I still believe in its value as an extension of property rights – a right to protect one’s self, family, and property – but its value as a defense against authoritarianism seems more tenuous to me each day.

Putting aside the demagogues and clowns like Dinesh D’Souza and Wayne LaPierre, there are numerous credible and intelligent conservatives who make credible and intelligent sounding arguments about the need for an armed citizenry to protect against state tyranny.  Upon close inspection, however, these arguments appear credible and intelligent only so long as they are propped up against conventional wisdom and common assumptions.

David French of National Review argued in the days following the recent mass shooting in Parkland, Florida that many gun control measures will “lead to such a yawning gap between citizen and state that private gun ownership no longer provides any meaningful deterrent to tyranny.”  He states further that “A free citizen armed with an assault rifle is more formidable than a free citizen armed only with a pistol. A population armed with assault rifles is more formidable than a population armed with less lethal weapons.”

His argument is echoed by scores of conservative intellectuals and rarely challenged on its merits.  Liberals scoff at the idea that armed citizens could stand up to a bristling U.S. military or they doubt the capacity of citizens to handle themselves in the romanticly rebellious way they imagine.  To be clear, skepticism is perfectly reasonable on both counts. For all their skepticism, however, few opponents ever seem to challenge the idea itself that the most effective form of resistance is the armed variety.  But what if conservatives are wrong in that most basic of their assumptions?

In their 2011 survey of civil conflict, Why Civil Resistance Works, political scientists Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan study the action and outcomes of hundreds of resistance campaigns across the world spanning more than a century.  Their findings cast doubt on that assumption. Chenoweth and Stephan find that nonviolent resistance tends to be a far more effective means of toppling tyranny than an armed insurgency. But the notion to the contrary persists.

Brendan Dougherty (also of National Review) stated in the wake of the horrific October massacre in Las Vegas, for example, that “civil society and good lawyers are all the defense you need against a non-tyrannical government. But a tyranny, an invader, or a pretender-government are more effectively resisted with guns.”  Both he and French agree:

“All great powers take into account the moral and manpower costs of implementing their rules and laws on a people. And an armed citizenry, especially if they seem to have a just cause to rally around, will dramatically raise the price of ruling them.”

But an armed citizenry does the exact opposite in the situation they describe and dramatically lowers the political cost of violent repression.  Chenoweth and Stephan find that armed insurrection or the presence of very publicly visible armed elements in an otherwise non-violent revolution discourage mass mobilization, encourage solidarity among security forces, free the state to retaliate violently, and help it to maintain legitimacy when it does.  Armed insurrection, far from withdrawing the consent of the governed, tends to legitimize the tyranny it fights in the eyes of the people it hopes to persuade.

Perhaps more ominous even than their conclusion, however, is its implication.  Chenoweth and Stephan find that the armed insurgencies are not only less likely to succeed, but that their presence alone tends to undermine healthy democracies rather than topple tyrannies.  They state that “since 1900, democratic governments succeeded only about 5 percent of victorious insurgencies,” and argue that armed insurgency is far less likely to produce “stable and reliable political order.”  They state that, following armed insurrection, “we see the new governments scrambling to establish hegemony over the new polity, often using violence to do so.”

French and Dougherty represent a certain high-minded view of gun rights that leans heavily on what it represents as a measured sense of history.  Dougherty sneers that, in bringing sense to bear on the issue, we should be careful not to “do violence to history itself.” But his own notion of resistance to tyranny is the one that runs contrary to history and the toxic notion of armed insurrection that he espouses goes against his own stated aims of preserving democracy.  The practical danger, though, is the implication, not of the application of his argument, but of the glee with which it is so readily deployed in conservative corners.

Chenoweth and Stephan quote a colleague in arguing further that “politicians who fail to condemn violence perpetrated by groups who locate themselves on the same end of the political spectrum” or who “remain silent in an effort to maintain their vote base should be made to realize that their actions jeopardize voting itself.”  The threat of insurrection is anathema to democracy and liberty and those who legitimize the groups making that threat are implicated in their corrosion.

The idea that armed insurgency is the best way to fight for liberty is absurd, even before considering the astronomical cost we pay in lives pretending that it isn’t.  But gun rights advocates who argue that the Second Amendment enshrines the most effective means of resisting tyranny should consider, not only that they are wrong. That distinction belongs, quite clearly, to the First.  They should give considerable thought to the role their rhetoric plays in encouraging and giving cover to those who would resort to armed violence in pursuit of political ends and the extent to which that rhetoric can undermine the liberty and democracy they fancy themselves protecting.