A friend asked me to comment on this article:
i) To begin with, we need to distinguish between what we think was the original rationale for the 2nd amendment, and what we think of the original rationale. Even if we think the original rationale was silly, it’s not silly to state what the original rationale was. Original intent is always a legitimate starting-point in discussing the Constitutional rule of law. By “original intent,” I mean both the legislative intent of the framers, as well as the intent of the states which ratified the Constitution.
The alternative is to make the Constitution mean whatever judges arbitrarily impute to the text, in which case we don’t really have a Constitution anymore. Instead, the Constitution is just an Etch A Sketch in the hands of the judiciary. The judiciary unilaterally rewrites the social contract. The judiciary decides from one year to the next what rights we have, what form of gov’t we have–conveniently insulating itself from the process.
ii) I also disagree with how Taylor frames the issue. We’re discussing a hypothetical situation. In that context, historical precedent has limited value. I’m not saying it has no value. But the past is not a blueprint for the future.
Moreover, when you compare one country to another, you have to make allowance for significant differences. At that point we get bogged down in historical analysis, comparing and contrasting the sociopolitical systems of one country with another. Their respective histories. Ethnic factions.
I think that becomes a major distraction, and is fairly irrelevant to the hypothetical. The hypothetical outcome depends on what variables you plug into the hypothetical. There are different hypothetical scenarios, with different outcomes. We must also assess the plausibility of the variables. Consider some of the simplistic assumptions in Taylor’s argument:
First, there is the rather obvious (or at least it ought to be) fact of the matter: if there is a true and dominant authoritarian impulse within the government—the type that could actually be turned effectively against the population, this would mean that the coercive power of the state would be turned against the population. It is quite clear that the coercive power of the United States government would not be taken down by an armed populace. There really is no argument here.Given the advanced deadly weaponry available to governments these days — as opposed to the late 18th century — most tyrants aren’t all that threatened by citizens with conventional weapons.
That oversimplifies the issues:
i) It’s not a question of whether a popular insurgency could directly topple a dictatorship by overpowering the military. An American dictator would have to have the cooperation of the military, FBI, CIA, NSA, as well as governors, mayors, and police chiefs. If his dictatorial policies precipitated an all-out civil war, then at some point he might lose support of the officials he needs to carry out his policies. What if subordinates stop following orders? What if his generals decide the civil war is too destructive, and stage a military coup?
On that scenario, it’s not insurgents defeating the military who bring him down. Rather, external pressure ups the internal pressure. He’s brought down from the inside. But that wouldn’t happen apart from the facts on the ground.
ii) It depends on the scale of the uprising. Are we talking about pockets of resistance? A few thousand ragtag insurgents? Or are we talking about tens of millions of armed insurgents?
Consider the collateral damage if the military tried to wipe out tens of millions of armed insurgents. It that realistic? Likewise, wouldn’t that turn the public against the gov’t?
iii) Are we talking about a direct confrontation between massed military forces and massed insurgent forces? Or are we talking about insurgents using guerilla tactics?
iv) To say the insurgents can’t defeat the military doesn’t mean the military can defeat the insurgents. That’s a false dichotomy. Depending on the scale of the insurgency, you might have a stalemate. In that event, the gov’t might decide to broker a peace deal, issue a general amnesty, in order to limit further catastrophic damage to the economy and vital infrastructure.
v) If it came to all-out civil war, it wouldn’t be a simple case of the military or gov’t agencies arraigned against the civilian populace. On the one hand, the insurgency would include ex-military. They’d have active-duty friends in the military. They’d have military expertise. There’d also be deserters. Soldiers who defect to the other side.
On the other hand, you’d have sympathizers within the military, FBI, CIA, NSA, National Guard, and police departments, who funnel guns, Semtext, C-4, &c. to the insurgents. Who feed intel to the insurgents.
vi) And it’s not just a case of a gunfight. If the situation escalated to full-scale civil war, you’d have insurgent hackers. Cyber warfare. Likewise, you’d have homemade bombs used to take out key infrastructure.
vii) It would be easier than in times past for insurgents to coordinate operations using code words and prepaid cell phones, which can’t be traced back to the user.
Further, those who try to argue from within this scenario don’t even understand how authoritarian states emerge. They do not come about because one day some scoundrel wakes up and decides to impose dictatorship, but rather it is a far more complex process that requires substantial support from within the state and the population.
i) A lot of liberals are already predisposed to a benevolent dictatorship, as they view it. They don’t care about the process. As long as the state is giving them “free” stuff, they will support it. They don’t have a problem with the judiciary circumventing the democratic process so long as they like the results. They don’t have a problem with a president circumventing Congress through executive orders so long as they like the results.
ii) A lot of liberals are convinced that “right-wingers” are evil, irrational, and dangerous. They honestly think “right-wingers” pose a threat to our quality of life and our very survival. Therefore, they’d be sympathetic to a gov’t crackdown. That’s the only way to deal with crazed right-wingers. They can’t be reasoned with.
That would give a would-be dictator some encouragement. At least initially, he’d enjoy some popular support.
iii) What if a president declares martial law? In theory, there are two ways this could happen:
a) He could exploit an opportune crisis as a pretext to declare martial law.
b) He could stage a crisis as a pretext to declare martial law. Suppose he stages an atrocity, then goes on national TV to pin the blame on the “domestic terrorists” or “gun-nuts,” then declares martial law to “protect” law-abiding citizens from this clear and present danger.
I’m not saying that’s a likely scenario. And I don’t think we’ve reached that tipping out. And I don’t expect that to happen.
At the same time, we have an attorney general who’s on record saying:
“We have to be repetitive about this,” he said. “We need to do this every day of the week, and just really brainwash people into thinking about guns in a vastly different way.”
Likewise, we have an administration which framed an innocent filmmaker for the Benghazi attack.
iv) Now you might say martial law is not a blank check. That a president lacks the statutory authority to suspend the Constitution. Maybe so. But that’s on paper. What would happen if he actually did declare martial law in a “national emergency”? Would events overtake legal niceties?
Of course, this dystopic scenario incubates in a misapprehension of the relationship between government and the citizens in the first place. That is: it assumes that “the people” are on one side even now and “the government” is on the other, without understanding that the government derives from people and is not some foreign entity outside of the rest of us.
But as I pointed out above, that would benefit the insurgents. They’d have inside help.
Of course, the Chilean case, even if it represents an example of democracy going to tyranny of the type that is feared in this context, it also makes my overall point: the military was quite willing to turn its might against the population and would not have been deterred by armed citizens (and, indeed, its ability to take power was because it had support from a substantial portion of the population).
That depends on whether the Chilean military culture is comparable to the American military culture. I’m no expert, but it’s my impression that many American officers and soldiers are loyal to the Constitution. They don’t see themselves as apparatchiks of the president. They see themselves defending the Constitution and protecting their countrymen.