In Dallas last week, Micah Johnson offered a real-world example of a law-abiding citizen taking up arms to fight what he perceived to be a government that was trampling the rights of its citizens. In reality, it looked like a bloody mass murder of a bunch of cops who were just doing their jobs.
But make no mistake: Johnson was acting on one of the central beliefs that animates the gun rights movement. It’s been called the “insurgency theory” of the Second Amendment, and it holds that Americans must have the right to own military-style weapons because a heavily armed populace is the last bulwark against a tyrannical government running amok.
The NRA is quite explicit about this. In 1998, Charlton Heston gave a speech at the National Press Club shortly after being named president of the NRA that has since become famous among gun-rights activists. “I say that the Second Amendment is, in order of importance, the first amendment,” he told the gathered reporters. “It is America’s First Freedom, the one right that protects all the others.… Because there is no such thing as a free nation where police and military are allowed the force of arms but individual citizens are not.” He called the right to bear arms, “the right we turn to when all else fails.” (The NRA publishes a magazine called America’s 1st Freedom.)
It’s not a new idea. In the aftermath of the 1994 assault weapons ban, Charles Dunlap Jr., a colonel in the US Air Force, wrote in the Tennessee Law Review that the insurgency theory of the Second Amendment dates back to the Constitutional Convention of 1787. In addition to protecting the institution of slavery from the abolition movement, the right to bear arms was a key a compromise between Federalists, who favored a strong central government with a standing army, and Anti-Federalists, who “had a deep distrust of professional militaries.”
Their English heritage, and especially their awareness of the excesses of Cromwell’s New Model Army, taught them that standing armies could be tools of a tyrannical monarch or a rogue military commander. Their apprehension gained a solid a posteriori basis when British regulars were used to quell the spreading dissatisfaction with colonial rule….
The linchpin of the scheme to counterbalance the potentially dangerous standing army was an armed citizenry, a force [Anti-Federalists] considered superior to any body of regular troops that could be raised in the United States.… Among the solutions the Framers devised to ensure that state-based militias remained effective and free from federal encroachment was the Second Amendment.