quis custodiet ipsos custodies?
Recently there’s been quite the uproar surrounding gun rights, public shootings, and President Obama’s declared intention to do everything that he can via executive order to keep everyone safe from gun violence. In the midst of what has devolved into a battle of rhetoric, memes, and emotionally charged allegations (often lacking in substance) from all sides, a group of heavily armed men took over a federal building in Oregon to protest what they consider federal overreach and blatant abuse of several ranchers.
Among the more conservative and fundamentalist right wing advocates of gun rights there has been a noticeable trend: to identify that the true purpose of the Second Amendment had nothing to do with gun rights and even self-protection was a secondary concern. The primary aim of the Second Amendment was to preserve freedom by presenting a government with an armed populace that was such an inherent threat that robbing citizens of freedom was simply not an option. This is an accurate statement, and is immediately apparent from even a cursory review of the writings of the Founding Fathers.
“What country can preserve its liberties if their rulers are not warned from time to time that their people preserve the spirit of resistance. Let them take arms.”
– Thomas Jefferson
“To disarm the people…[i]s the most effectual way to enslave them.”
– George Mason
“The right of the citizens to keep and bear arms has justly been considered, as the palladium of the liberties of a republic; since it offers a strong moral check against the usurpation and arbitrary power of rulers; and will generally, even if these are successful in the first instance, enable the people to resist and triumph over them.”
– Joseph Story
“If the representatives of the people betray their constituents, there is then no resource left but in the exertion of that original right of self-defense which is paramount to all positive forms of government… The citizens must rush tumultuously to arms…”
– Alexander Hamilton
“As civil rulers, not having their duty to the people before them, may attempt to tyrannize, and as the military forces which must be occasionally raised to defend our country, might pervert their power to the injury of their fellow citizens, the people are confirmed by the article in their right to keep and bear their private arms.”
– Tench Coxe
To argue that the crafters of our Constitution (who had just birthed our country in armed revolt against their own government) disdained the idea of armed rebellion is simply ignorant. However, it’s easy to spout rhetoric and share memes on social media, but what about when the metal meets the meat? Let’s follow this line of thinking through to its logical conclusion; let’s fast-forward to when Skynet sends a Terminator back in time and, instead of going after John Connor, he decides to become President and kickstart all of our worst authoritarian nightmares. What happens then?
Wars are never fought against lawmakers; they are always fought against law enforcers. During the Revolutionary War King George wasn’t on the front lines dumping powder and ball down a muzzleloader or leading bayonet charges – the soldiers who were engaged in policing action, enforcing his rule against lawbreakers were. When Pol Pot slaughtered millions in the Khmer Rouge he didn’t walk around whacking people with his own personal machete – he got his law enforcement and military to do it.
You see, when a government turns to tyranny its citizens don’t fight against the people writing the laws; the people who are actually lined up in the crosshairs are law enforcement and military. These are the people who will be shot at. To simplify the argument down to its most concrete applications, when someone contends that the Second Amendment is ultimately to preserve the right of the people to violently resist their own government, if necessary, what they’re truly saying is that the Second Amendment gives them the ability to shoot law enforcement when unjust laws are being enforced.
The fascinating aspect of this unfolding American drama is that the same people who are simultaneously screaming most loudly that American citizens should maintain both the capability (via gun ownership) and the willingness (via the recognition that the Second Amendment exists to threaten a tyrannical government) to shoot law enforcement are the same people condemning police accountability groups from activities as innocuous as recording law enforcement in the course of their normal duties.
If the ultimate ends to which we’re willing to go is actually pointing a gun at law enforcement and using it, why the incredible resistance to pointing a camera at them?
The answer is simple: a misunderstanding of the concept of freedom.
“Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state, an intolerable one.”
– Thomas Paine
“Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
– The Declaration of Independence
Democratically elected governments have no inherent power except that which its citizens decide to surrender to it. Government, by its very nature, controls and restricts freedoms. Done correctly and rarely, this can actually serve to increase liberties (think how much more easily we can travel because of simple traffic laws); done incorrectly, legitimate freedoms are restricted. Losses of freedom do not happen quickly, but gradually. Bit by bit, freedoms are lost, often in the nebulous (and often fruitless) pursuit of safety. We surrender essential liberties to the government because allowing normal citizens to have them is too scary; the government takes those surrendered liberties and makes laws about them; then those hired as law enforcement go out and make sure the law is followed – and suddenly we wake up to freedoms we once enjoyed ourselves being enforced for us without our consent.
Consider this clip from V for Vendetta, and I want you to specifically listen for two things: first, who was to blame for surrendering freedoms to a government that turned to tyranny? Second, who was charged with enforcing that tyranny?
Contrary to what you may have inferred when you read the title of this post, I’m not proposing that anyone shoots a cop. However, if you are advocating for the defense of the Second Amendment you’re advocating that citizens maintain both the capability and the willingness to do just that, and that’s why you should consider shooting a cop very, very seriously before you simply spout off in defense of the Second Amendment. It’s weighty stuff.
Laws are useless without enforcement. Tyrants have no power without those willing to enforce their rule. Government accountability begins (and to some degree, ends) with ensuring that those enforcing the law understand freedom, respect the citizens they hold power over, and take seriously the sacred trust and balancing act of maintain freedom while preserving safety. It isn’t an easy thing to do, which is why citizens need to hold the thin blue line accountable. Accountability starts with observation, proceeds through an objective standard (remember that Lady Justice is blind for a reason), and ends with repercussions that give no favors for what clothing you wear, position you hold, or status you maintain. I’ve written previously about the world cops have created, but in truth the blame lies with us, the citizens. Specifically, those most to blame are the ones who have stood by and blindly protected the thin blue line as if they were above reproach while entire departments have been corrupted; those who have condemned measures of accountability as “inconvenient” or “disrespectful.”
Protecting freedom requires accountability of those who hold the power to strip your freedoms from you. If you condemn pointing a camera at police, realize that you will never have the courage to point a gun at them. Regardless of how many “don’t tread on me” pieces of clothing and paraphernalia you have, you will simply be incidental to the outcome. All governments eventually turn to tyranny – such is one of the lessons of history. The Second Amendment will eventually be needed for its true purpose. However, if we want to stave off that day for as long as possible we must create a strong culture of holding anyone with any government power to account for their actions – which starts with those carrying guns to enforce the will of the government.
No matter how many guns you own, irrespective of how many Second Amendment rallies you attend, regardless of your life membership with the NRA, if you do not hold police accountable now for the laws they enforce then you will never have the courage to utilize your Second Amendment rights when that dreaded day you predict actually comes. Maintaining freedom requires fighting for it, and if you’re incapable of doing that peacefully you will never be able to do it violently.