What’s motivating the armed protesters who occupied Oregon’s Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last week?
A local sheriff explained it this way: they came,
claiming to be part of militia groups supporting local ranchers. In reality, [they] had alternative motives to attempt to overthrow the county and federal government in hopes to spark a movement across the United States.
Ammon Bundy, a leader of the protesters, named their group “Citizens for Constitutional Freedom.” He described their cause this way:
The United States Justice Department has no jurisdiction or authority within the state of Oregon, county of Harney over this type of ranch management. These lands are not under U.S. treaties or commerce … and Congress does not have unlimited power.
Bundy and his supporters—with guns in tow—want to challenge what they see as government overreach. They believe their method of protest is firmly American and patriotic, reminiscent of armed protests against government tyranny in the Revolutionary War. Some protesters have even donned Colonial garb to underline this point. But as someone who has studied the philosophical foundations of the Second Amendment, I would argue that their actions are detrimental to our democracy.
The right to shoot tyrants
The protesters have been eager to play up the air of civilian rebellion. Bundy spoke of liberating the land for people to use “without fear as free men and women.”
Ammon’s brother Ryan called the government’s restrictions on ranchers using federal land “an example of terrorism.”
Their firearms are what makes this an occupation and lent it that air of civilian rebellion. The Bundys and their followers are exercising the main purpose of the Second Amendment, according to many in the gun rights movement.
Soon after the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, when the forces of gun control were mobilizing, Washington Times commentator Andrew Napolitano wrote, “The historical reality of the Second Amendment’s protection of the right to keep and bear arms is not that it protects the right to shoot deer. It protects the right to shoot tyrants, and … to shoot at them effectively.”
This notion lends a certain nobility to the gun rights movement. The movement sees itself as standing up for democracy. Widespread civilian gun ownership ensures the integrity of our democracy. It ensures that the people remain sovereign, as our founders intended. The “right to shoot tyrants,” as Napolitano put it, warns our leaders away from the temptation of governing too oppressively.
Part of our DNA
The modern gun rights movement cites English philosopher John Locke as an intellectual inspiration—a fortuitous link, since our Founding Fathers also drew on Locke in composing our founding documents. Guns are deeply inscribed in our nation’s DNA.
Gun rights advocates believe Locke is in their corner because he accords citizens a inviolable right of self-defense, which also extends to one’s property.
I have argued elsewhere, however, that the modern gun rights movement is too expansive in its conception of self-defense, even applying it to controversial Stand Your Ground laws.
Locke is clear that once government is convened by means of a social contract, individuals largely transfer their right of self-defense to the state. This is to avoid self-defense bleeding into vigilantism, and then war. Such a transfer is the very mark of civil society.
But gun rights advocates admire Locke because he sanctions the citizens’ right to dissolve government—and to use their guns to do it. Locke expresses a concern that disarming subjects may enable the ruler to “make prey on them when he pleases.” The Oregon protesters would likely say they are doing Locke’s will—they are taking a stand, guns in hand, and will not be pushed around by the government any longer.
Locke sees two primary cases where such a rebellion is justified:
- When a lawmaker alters the laws without consultation or consent of the people and “sets up his own Arbitrary will in place of laws,” and
- When he aims to destroy or lay claim to their property or persons.
A tremendous risk
The Oregon protesters would likely see their protest as fitting Locke’s criteria.
Ammon Bundy says the government is not abiding by the laws that the people have approved. His allies also believe the government, in mandating a slew of onerous regulations over federal land management, is denying them their livelihood, threatening their persons and well-being.
Of course, people may say that a lot of complaints against the government meet Locke’s conditions. They might—and do—call any number of government actions “tyranny.” Locke would not be surprised. He anticipated that critics would say his “hypothesis lays the ferment for frequent rebellion.”
But Locke was not worried. He explained that people will not be quick to rebel over every little complaint, but only for “a long train of abuses.” Why? Because rebellion is no trivial matter; it carries tremendous risks, including the demise of the state and civil society, and a possible return to the anarchy of a state of nature.
Locke maintained the right to rebellion is itself “the best fence against rebellion.” Simply knowing that the people retain this right, our elected officials will resist bad behavior.
More importantly, Locke said, the people must be careful in how they wield the right to rebel. It is treacherous and foolish for citizens to invoke the threat of rebellion often, or casually, or for minor and isolated complaints. Locke warned those in power have the “temptation of force … and the flattery of those around them.”
Threats of rebellion may cause our leaders to worry about their self-preservation and provoke a violent response.
Tempting a tiger
These are somber words for gun rights advocates eager to justify the Second Amendment on the basis of supposed government tyranny, especially considering the “temptation of force” in the hands of the U.S. government.
Indeed, we have seen the government succumb to this temptation when police forces, whom the Department of Homeland Security has showered with military-grade equipment, deployed equipment to dispel protests in heavy-handed fashion, as in Ferguson, Missouri and Zuccotti Park in Manhattan.
Recurring threats of rebellion tell the government that a portion of the electorate is seriously contemplating violence—and it must be prepared to respond in turn. After all, Timothy McVeigh acted on his antigovernment sentiments. Our government cannot afford to take the threats of insurrectionists and antigovernment folk lightly.
The gun rights advocates may make their predictions come true. They fret about tyrannical government, but by waving their guns threateningly, by frequently citing the right to rebel, they invite the government to respond with force. The government has been restrained thus far in dealing with Malheur, but as Locke argues, insurrection encourages the government to be oppressive and act outside the law.
Martin Luther King Jr. understood democracy far better when, from the Birmingham jail, he wrote, “one who breaks an unjust law must do so openly, lovingly,” for in so doing, he expresses “the highest regard for law.”
The genius of unarmed protest is that it compels our leaders to behave and respond lawfully. King proved how effective nonviolent protest can be. The Oregon protesters would do well to ponder his example.