Even as he deplored the depressing regularity of gun massacres in the United States, President Obama struck an entirely new tone for progressives in reaction to the Oregon murders:
I’d ask the American people to think about how they can get our government to change these laws, and to save lives, and to let young people grow up. And that will require a change of politics on this issue. And it will require that the American people, individually, whether you are a Democrat or a Republican or an independent, when you decide to vote for somebody, are making a determination as to whether this cause of continuing death for innocent people should be a relevant factor in your decision.
Obama also broke a couple of major taboos, promising he would “politicize” this and future gun massacres, and attacking the “American Exceptionalism” that makes this such a heavily-armed society.
In a parallel development, Hillary Clinton promised to make gun safety a significant issue in her presidential campaign. Democrats have not done that in quite some time.
What neither Obama nor Clinton did was focus on begging congressional Republicans to end their total ban on legislation addressing such outrages as the gun show loophole to gun purchase background checks.
Of course, that would have been a waste of time. For even if we are now seeing a polarization of Democratic opinion on guns away from any idea of compromising with a GOP that is totally beholden to the gun lobby, it is a response to an earlier and much more radical polarization of Republicans. And to a remarkable extent, the default position of conservatives has less and less to do with arguments about the efficacy of gun regulation or the need for guns to deter or respond to crime. Instead, it’s based on the idea that the main purpose of the Second Amendment is to keep open the possibility of revolutionary violence against the U.S. government.
This was once an exotic, minority view even among gun enthusiasts who tended to view the Second Amendment as protecting an individual right to gun ownership not to overthrow the government but to supplement the government’s use of lethal force against criminals. Treating the Second Amendment as an integral legacy of the American Revolution appealed to gun rights advocates who sought firm ground against regulations with no possibility of compromise.
But more importantly, it gave a dangerous edge to the claims of conservative extremists—who recently began calling themselves “constitutional conservatives”—that their ideology of absolute property rights, religious rights and even fetal rights had been permanently established by the Founders who added in the Second Amendment to ensure any trespassing on their “design” by “tyrants” or popular majorities could and should be resisted.
Nowadays this revolutionary rationale for gun rights is becoming the rule rather than the exception for conservative politicians and advocates. Mike Huckabee, a sunny and irenic candidate for president in 2008, all but threatened revolutionary violence in his recent campaign book for the 2016 cycle, God, Guns, Grits and Gravy:
If the Founders who gave up so much to create liberty for us could see how our government has morphed into a ham-fisted, hypercontrolling “Sugar Daddy,” I believe those same patriots who launched a revolution would launch another one. Too many Americans have grown used to Big Government’s overreach. They’ve been conditioned to just bend over and take it like a prisoner [!]. But in Bubba-ville, the days of bending are just about over. People are ready to start standing up for freedom and refusing to take it anymore.
Dr. Ben Carson, another candidate thought to be a mild-mannered Christian gentleman, recently disclosed that he used to favor modest gun control measures until he came to realize the importance of widespread gun ownership as a safeguard against “tyranny.”
“When you look at tyranny and how it occurs, the pattern is so consistent: Get rid of the guns,” Carson told USA Today.
Combined with Carson’s signature belief that “progressives” are undertaking a conspiracy to impose “tyranny” via stealth and “political correctness,” one might fear he thinks the time for taking up arms is relatively near, and would be particularly justified if any gun regulations were enacted.
Perhaps the most surprising statement on this subject from a Republican presidential candidate was by a rare figure who dissents from the right-to-revolution talk, per this report from Sahil Kapur at TPM a few months ago:
Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz’s argument that the Second Amendment provides the “ultimate check against government tyranny” is a bit too extreme for potential 2016 rival and fellow Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC).
“Well, we tried that once in South Carolina. I wouldn’t go down that road again,” Graham said, in an apparent reference to the Civil War. “I think an informed electorate is probably a better check than, you know, guns in the streets.”
Graham joked about this, but liberals generally are not amused by the suggestion that “patriotic” Americans should be stockpiling guns in case “they”—it’s not clear who, of course—decide it’s time to start shooting police officers and members of the armed forces in defense of their liberties, which in some cases are perceived to be extremely broad. Indeed, a lot of Second Amendment ultras appear to think the right to revolution is entirely up to the individual revolutionary. Here’s Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa, the darling of the GOP Class of 2014, talking about this contingency in 2012:
I have a beautiful little Smith & Wesson, 9 millimeter, and it goes with me virtually everywhere…But I do believe in the right to carry, and I believe in the right to defend myself and my family — whether it’s from an intruder, or whether it’s from the government, should they decide that my rights are no longer important.
You can wonder, as I often do, how people like Ernst would react to such rhetoric if it were coming from a member of a black nationalist or Islamist group. But clearly, there’s no point in progressives seeking any “compromise” with them on gun issues. They can only be defeated by a true mass social movement supporting reasonable gun regulation. But it’s important to understand that according to the Cult of the Second Amendment, opponents of gun measures have every right to fire back, literally.
Ed Kilgore is the principal blogger for Washington Monthly’s Political Animal blog and Managing Editor of The Democratic Strategist. Earlier he worked for three governors and a U.S. Senator. He can be followed on Twitter at @ed_kilgore.