Does the Second Amendment protect a right of insurrection?

March 15th, 2013

Often when I write about the Second Amendment, I quote Judge Kozinski’s dissent in Silveira v. Lockyer:

All too many of the other great tragedies of history — Stalin’s atrocities, the killing fields of Cambodia, the Holocaust, to name but a few — were perpetrated by armed troops against unarmed populations. 570*570 Many could well have been avoided or mitigated, had the perpetrators known their intended victims were equipped with a rifle and twenty bullets apiece, as the Militia Act required here. See Kleinfeld Dissent at 578-579. If a few hundred Jewish fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto could hold off the Wehrmacht for almost a month with only a handful of weapons, six million Jews armed with rifles could not so easily have been herded into cattle cars.

My excellent colleagues have forgotten these bitter lessons of history. The prospect of tyranny may not grab the headlines the way vivid stories of gun crime routinely do. But few saw the Third Reich coming until it was too late. The Second Amendment is a doomsday provision, one designed for those exceptionally rare circumstances where all other rights have failed — where the government refuses to stand for reelection and silences those who protest; where courts have lost the courage to oppose, or can find no one to enforce their decrees. However improbable these contingencies may seem today, facing them unprepared is a mistake a free people get to make only once.

Is the Second Amendment merely a right to defend oneself from private aggression, or does it also protect a right to rebel against a tyrannical government. If it is the latter, the scope of permissible gun control laws–laws enacted by the very government that is alleged to be tyrannical–would be suspect.

My friend Carl Cecere addresses this question at the ConSource Blog. Here is a sample:

The common thread among those espousing this insurrectionist vision is the notion that the Second Amendment exists primarily to prevent “tyranny,” whether from some occupying foreign power, or the illegitimate actions of our own government.  This theory holds that to enable citizens to combat the threat of tyranny, they must not be out-gunned by their tyrannical oppressors.  They must instead be permitted to outfit themselves with the implements of war.  And the determination of when those arms should be used is ultimately up to the individual’s own conscience.

This idea may sound extreme, but it is not relegated to the fringe.  Serious politicians, pundits, scholars and jurists openly espouse the idea.  And according to a Rasmussen poll, over 65 percent of the American people—and even a majority of those who do not own weapons themselves—see the right to bear arms as ensuring that people can protect themselves against tyranny.

This notion of a right of insurrection is deeply rooted in an idyllic vision of our common revolutionary past.  We imagine the minuteman springing spontaneously to arms to combat his menacing foe, possessed with certainty of his cause and the solidarity of his fellow citizens.  This version of history is a myth.  Like all good myths, it certainly has a kernel of truth.  But it also gets some pretty basic historical facts wrong.

Did the Founding generation fear “tyranny,” in both its foreign and domestic forms?  Undoubtedly.  Did they think that an armed citizenry had a role in combatting it?  Surely.  Did the Second Amendment secure that right?  No doubt about it.

But did they believe that the Second Amendment would give every individual the right to arm themselves with whatever weapons they chose, and did it leave to the individual the decision whether to employ those weapons?  Absolutely not.

Carl has a great historical analysis of this topic.