In the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre and the ensuing debates, arguments, and frenzied screaming from all sides regarding gun laws in the U.S., I’ve seen a number of people say that the reason the 2nd Amendment is so important is that private citizens need to own firearms in case the government becomes a tyranny and we all have to rise up in revolution.
This raises a lot of questions for me. But the main one is this: at what point is armed revolution against the government justified?
Now, I come from a family of rebels and activists. My great-grandparents were Communists and Anarchists. My grandparents were labor organizers and supporters. My parents were involved in the Civil Rights Movement and counseled draft resisters during the American involvement in Vietnam. I was raised to question authority, to fight for what I believe in, and to engage in civil disobedience when necessary. (My great-aunt was arrested for protesting police brutality in New York City when she was in her 80s.) Casablanca is one of my favorite movies, and of course I always root for the French Resistance.
But still, I wonder…
When John Wilkes Booth assassinated President Lincoln, he shouted “Sic semper tyrannis!” (“Thus always to tyrants!”) from the stage of Ford’s Theatre. He clearly saw Lincoln as a tyrant who needed to be removed. Were his actions justified? Was he right to assassinate Lincoln? What about Timothy McVeigh and the Oklahoma City bombing? Was that a justified action? I think the George W. Bush administration’s actions and policies verged awfully close to fascism, so would I have been justified in legally purchasing arms and ammunition and striking out against the government? We’ve seen right wing rhetoric about Barack Obama being a “socialist dictator” (as laughable as that rhetoric is), so is taking arms against the current government justified?
Defenders of the 2nd Amendment love to quote Thomas Jefferson, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” And in theory, that’s all well and good. But at what point is violent revolution actually justified? If you truly think we need to legally arm ourselves to protect against a tyrannical government, what’s your definition of tyranny and what violence will you actually endorse and defend? How do you know you’ll recognize a tyrant, and what makes you think John Wilkes Booth or Timothy McVeigh didn’t recognize one? Or do you think they did and they were on the side of the angels? When we get away from the romantic notion of a popular revolution against a cruel tyrant (a romantic notion that I quite like, in fact) and get into the real business of arming ourselves against an oppressive government, whose blood do you imagine you’ll be spilling? When is the spilling of blood the right thing to do and when is it wrong?
If you can’t answer these questions–or if you can answer them without hesitating–then I think you have a lot of thinking to do. And I don’t want you armed while you’re thinking it over.