No reasonable person who has heard, or read, Donald Trump’s words about Hillary Clinton and her determination to “abolish the Second Amendment” can fail to be appalled at his suggestion of violence to an audience in Wilmington, North Carolina:
Hillary wants to abolish—essentially abolish the Second Amendment. By the way, if she gets to pick, if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.
Trump was saying, without ambiguity, that once Hillary Clinton is elected President, she will appoint judges who will, in Trump’s view, “abolish the Second Amendment” and the only people who can successfully defend the Second Amendment against this judicial assault are those willing to take action by force of arms, either against President Clinton, or the judges, or whoever else must be targeted.
The suggestion of politically-motivated violence against public officials is terrifying on its face, but it is certainly nothing new. Indeed, Trump’s comments are a specific application of the “insurrectionist” view of Second Amendment rights that has long been a core tenet of the ideology of the National Rifle Association and the far right. According to that view, the overriding purpose of the Second Amendment is to guarantee the populace the arms it may need to resist government tyranny. An NRA lawyer explained, “...the Second Amendment was directed at maintaining an armed citizenry for mutual defense, and perhaps most significantly, to protect against the tyranny of our own government.” (emphasis supplied) “The founders sought to protect arms from government interference,” he continued, “because those same arms might be needed to protect the people from government.” (emphasis supplied) Some years later, an NRA official put it somewhat more colorfully: “the Second Amendment...is literally a loaded gun in the hands of the people held to the heads of government.”
The NRA likes to refer to the Second Amendment as our “First Freedom,” because it is seen as the ultimate protector of all our other rights. In 2010, the NRA’s Wayne LaPierre received deafening cheers at the Conservative Political Action Conference when he declared that “liberty is but an illusion,” unless we are ready to defend it against the government by force of arms:
Our divine rights, they might have been endowed by a Creator, but they are preserved by mortals, if we mortals have the means and the will to make it stick...Freedom is nothing but dust in the wind till it’s guarded by the blue steel and dry powder of a free and armed people...Our founding fathers understood that the guys with the guns make the rules.
(emphasis supplied) It is worth pausing on that last phrase. Under the NRA’s view, we are free only to the extent that our guns allow us to impose our will on others.
Who is to determine when the government has become a tyranny, justifying armed resistance? If the right to be armed is an individual right, as the NRA insists and as the Supreme Court first held in the 2008 Heller decision, and the point of that right is to enable resistance to government, then it must be up to each individual to decide when the time for insurrection has come. And “tyranny” is very much in the eye of the beholder. For Timothy McVeigh, whose 1995 bombing of a federal building in Oklahoma City was at the time the most deadly terrorist attack in U.S. history, the FBI and ATF became agents of tyranny when they set siege to the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas. The Ku Klux Klan invoked the insurrectionist theory of the Second Amendment to justify its resistance to forced racial integration. Today, right-wing “citizen militias” cite the Second Amendment as they train with assault weapons to resist a federal government that has allegedly destroyed sacred property rights. To the killers of police officers in Dallas and Baton Rouge, perhaps police shootings of black civilians tyrannized minority communities sufficiently to justify armed resistance. Inevitably, the NRA’s insurrectionism becomes a prescription for anarchy in which only those with the most deadly weapons prevail. After all, “the guys with the guns make the rules.” It is hard to imagine a doctrine more at odds with democratic government and the rule of law. It is an absurd paradox to find a right of insurrection in the Constitution when such a right would be the end of Constitutional government.
Although Donald Trump has been endorsed by the NRA, it is doubtful that he saw himself as invoking the NRA’s insurrectionist theory of the Second Amendment, or that he ever had a serious thought about the validity of a constitutional right of armed resistance. On its face, his suggestion of violence as a remedy against the rulings of Clinton-appointed judges should be disqualifying for any Presidential candidate. But what makes his words especially dangerous is that they likely resonated with the cadre of gun extremists who have thoroughly absorbed the NRA’s insurrectionist ideology. In their view, what could be a more serious threat to liberty than the appointment of judges who would destroy the Second Amendment itself—the freedom that is the foundation of all our other freedoms? If you believe that “the guys with the guns make the rules,” what could be a more powerful justification for armed resistance than the need to rewrite the rules set by a Clinton judiciary that would destroy our First Freedom?
We can only hope that Trump’s stupid, irresponsible comment did not plant the seeds of violence. But if it did, we know that the NRA plowed the fertile ground in which they could grow.
About the Author
Dennis A. Henigan is director of legal and policy analysis at the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids and formerly vice president of the Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence. Follow him on Twitter at @DennisHenigan and visit his website.