Monday, February 25, 2013

Do I Have the Right to Take Up Arms Against the Government

Suppose that Congress were to pass a bill that makes it illegal to possess mercury thermometers, citing environmental concerns and the danger that they pose to children when they break. And suppose that the President signs that bill into law. Next, suppose the law is challenged in the federal courts and the Supreme Court dismisses the challenges to the law and upholds its enforceability. Finally, suppose that you are a collector of mercury thermometers or are in the business of making or selling them and, therefore, you strongly object to this new law.

Do you have the right to take up arms against the government?

If a Federal Marshall appears at your door, do you have the right to shoot him in the name of revolution or to oppose the tyranny evidenced by the mercury thermometer seizure? Can you take your revolution to the members of Congress who voted for this law or the President who signed it or a judge who dismissed a legal challenge to the enforceability of the law? Can you shoot your neighbor who thinks that the law is a good idea?

I presume that everybody will answer “No!” to those queries (and if you didn’t, I think that you need to seek help right now).

It might be worth going back and reading that preceding hypothetical again, but this time substitute for “mercury thermometers” the term “incandescent light bulbs”. Do you reach a different result? I didn’t think so.

But what about some slightly less ridiculous example. Instead of mercury thermometers (or light bulbs), what if the ban was on radar detectors used to avoid police speed traps? Radio controlled model airplanes (that could be used to carry explosive payloads)? A new cancer-fighting drug that has also become a new exotic hallucinogenic of choice?

If you feel that those new laws are unfair or violate your rights or represent government “tyranny” do you have a right to take up arms against the government or your fellow citizens?

I’d again presume that the answer would remain “No”.

But what if we get a bit more close to rights protected by the Constitution?

What if the new law (and remember, this hypothetical law is passed by an elected Congress, signed by an elected President, and upheld by a majority of the Supreme Court [that was itself appointed by Presidents subject to consent to by the Senate]) imposes even more burdensome forms of proof of citizenship in order to vote? What if the new law requires ownership of land in order to vote? What if the new law required proficiency in English before a person could vote.

Would those impacted by the law have the right to take up arms in against the government of the United States? Could they fire upon those who sought to enforce the new law on election day?

Or, say that the new law was a direct challenge to the First Amendment. What if the law says that children cannot have a sip of alcohol, even as part of a religious observance? What if, instead of alcohol, the law prohibited the sacrifice of animals or use of peyote as a part of a religious observance? What if the law prohibited devil worship or even the practice of Islam? (Or, to be more realistic for a moment, what about a law, especially a local law, prohibiting the erection of a mosque in a particular place or in a particular county?)

Would those impacted by the law have the right to take up arms in revolution against the government of the United States?

While I think that we’d all (I hope!) agree that some of those hypothetical laws sound blatantly unconstitutional, I think that we’d all also probably agree that those adversely affected would not have a right to begin shooting their Congressional representatives. Right?

But what if the prohibition has nothing to do with the First Amendment and, instead, focuses on the Second Amendment? What if the prohibition is on the possession of fully automatic machine guns? What if the prohibition extends to semi-automatic assault rifles or high capacity magazines or armor piercing bullets? While I think most sane people would continue to answer in the negative in these scenarios, there appears to be a frightening increase in the number of people willing to publicly say that they do, indeed, have the right to take up arms to prevent this type of governmental “tyranny”.

What is it about guns that puts them beyond the purview of the democratic process and beyond the same sorts of limitations applicable to other constitutionally protected rights?

It seems to me that the definition of “tyranny” has become less about a dictator imposing his will upon the public over the objections legislative actions of elected officials or beyond the workings of the democratic process and has, instead, become any action by an elected Democratic President, even with the support of a democratically elected Congress, with which Republicans (or at least conservatives on the far right) disagree. Obamacare? Tyranny! The economic stimulus? Tyranny! Light bulbs? Tyranny! (Oh, wait. That was a Republican President, but it’s still viewed as tyranny…) Executive orders and “czars” are tyranny too, except, apparently, those issued or appointed by a Republican President. Even the actions of a First Lady to try to get children to eat healthier are decried as government meddling and “tyranny”.

No, as I’ve been saying for a long time now, the degree to which political opponents are being demonized, the extent to which opposing viewpoints are deemed “treasonous”, and the way in which facts, too often, seem irrelevant (if not outright “proof” of the opposite), are just further steps toward political anarchy, violence, or worse. If some segments of society continue to hear that Democrats and President Obama are traitors, that they are engaged in “tyranny”, that they’re not legitimate (whether because of birther nonsense or allegations of voter fraud or whatever), how long will it be before some of them decide to act? How many times will it take for someone to hear a right wing talking head say that the “gumint is comin’ to take yer guns” before they believe it and act upon that belief (and by “act”, I don’t mean at the ballot box…)?

Think of it this way: Prior to the election of President Obama, how often did you hear people mention “Second Amendment remedies”? How often did you see signs saying “We came unarmed … this time”? How often did you hear acts of Congress or the President described as “tyranny” (I mean, did you hear President Bush described as a tyrant for authorizing warrantless wiretaps, indefinite detention, and torture…)? Perhaps most importantly, how often did you hear the stress placed upon the portion of oaths of office to protect and defend the country or the Constitution from enemies, both “foreign and domestic”? Just think about that for a second. What some people are really saying when they recite that is that those with whom they disagree are somehow actual enemies for which an oath of office (including that of the military) requires action. If you’ve sworn to defend the country against domestic enemies and if the President, because of his political positions, is viewed as an “enemy” (no matter that a majority might agree with those views), then where are we? And yes, some of the far right really do refer to President Obama as “the enemy”.*

We have a gun problem in America. I think that even most gun proponents would recognize that (at least I hope they would). But to even suggest that people have a right to take up arms against a democratically elected government operating within the framework of the democratic process is, itself, coming close to … well, I’m not sure. I don’t think it’s treasonous. Seditious? Perhaps. But one word that I do know applies: Dangerous. When we let our political rhetoric get carried away with discussion about when you’re allowed to kill a federal official, when states begin to take it upon themselves to talk about nullification of federal law (notwithstanding the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution or that silly little squabble called the Civil War), when talking heads tell you that the government is doing things it isn’t and has plans it doesn’t, then I fear we’re yet another step closer to the sort of political violence so endemic to the rest of the world.

If you have a different opinion about guns, that’s fine. Express your opinion. And work to elect candidates that agree with you. And if politicians who agree with me enact legislation you dislike, then by all means try to vote them out of office or challenge those laws in court. But leave your gun out of the discussion. If you value democracy and those values that have made America great, then please limit your rhetoric to that which is appropriate for a democracy and don’t start implicitly (or explicitly!) threatening violence or civil war if you don’t get your way.

When the democratic process goes against you, it isn’t a sign of tyranny; rather it’s a sign that the majority holds a different viewpoint. Please stop suggesting to others that violence is an acceptable response to the democratic process. Please stop threatening to water the tree of liberty with the blood of those with whom you disagree. Please don’t force me to buy a gun to keep my family and my country safe when you become a terrorist.


*For those who might suggest that I’m being a bit hyperbolic in claiming that some on the right call President Obama their “enemy”, I offer the following from Bryan Fischer, the Director of Issues Analysis for the American Family Association:


Partial transcript:

Ladies and gentlemen,we should be under no illusions here; President Obama is not our friend, President Obama is our enemy. He is seeking to restrict religious liberty. He wants to confine the First Amendment Free Exercise of Religion clause to one hour a week. That’s what he wants to do. So he is not our friend.

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