Last month, Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke proposed a modest solution to the relentless tide of mass shootings: a mandatory buyback program for every AR-15 in the country. The View co-host Meghan McCain responded with a dire warning. “The AR-15 is by far the most popular gun in America, by far,” she told her fellow panelists. “I was just in the middle of nowhere Wyoming, if you’re talking about taking people’s guns from them, there’s going to be a lot of violence.”
Tucker Carlson echoed McCain’s blood-soaked sentiment on his Tuesday night broadcast. “So, this is—what you are calling for is civil war,” he said. “What you are calling for is an incitement to violence. It’s something I wouldn’t want to live here when that happened, would you? I’m serious.” Erick Erickson, a prominent conservative columnist, also warned of tragedy. “I know people who keep AR-15’s buried because they’re afraid one day the government might come for them,” he wrote on Twitter. “I know others who are stockpiling them. It is not a stretch to say there’d be violence if the [government] tried to confiscate them.”
“There would be violence” neatly elides what’s actually being claimed: Some gun-rights activists would murder government officials who try to enforce a duly passed law. This isn’t an extreme viewpoint among such gun enthusiasts. If anything, it’s one of their central tenets.
Let’s examine the hypothetical scenario in which something akin to O’Rourke’s proposal gets enacted. First, Democrats capture the White House and the Senate in next year’s election. Second, they pass a federal law that requires mandatory buybacks of AR-15s and other semiautomatic rifles. Third, the Supreme Court narrowly upholds the law’s constitutionality, perhaps with Chief Justice John Roberts casting the fifth vote to save it on narrow grounds. This sequence of events is slightly improbable. Then again, so were the events that led to Donald Trump becoming president.
Who, then, would gun-rights supporters murder in response? Would it be the lawmakers who passed the law? Would it be the judges who rejected legal challenges to it? Would it be the president who championed the initiative on the campaign trail and spent political capital to make it a reality? Perhaps the activists, such as the parents of children killed at Sandy Hook and the teenagers who saw their classmates die in Parkland, would be targeted. The civil servants tasked with implementing the buyback program might have to face this grave danger. So would the cops who come knocking on doors, looking for unaccounted AR-15s.
This insurrectionist message is not new. Sharron Angle, a far-right Nevada politician, implied that gun-rights advocates might turn violent against Democrats during her 2010 race against then–Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “I feel that the Second Amendment is the right to keep and bear arms for our citizenry,” she explained during a radio interview in 2010. “This not for someone who’s in the military. This not for law enforcement. This is for us. And in fact when you read that Constitution and the founding fathers, they intended this to stop tyranny. This is for us when our government becomes tyrannical.”
The host interjected to suggest that America might be headed that way. “If we needed it at any time in history, it might be right now,” he said. “Well it’s to defend ourselves,” Angle continued. “And you know, I’m hoping that we’re not getting to Second Amendment remedies. I hope the vote will be the cure for the Harry Reid problems.” Her inflammatory remarks, combined with other controversial stances, helped Reid win reelection that year even as Republicans toppled numerous Democrats a wave election across the country.
Joe Walsh, a former Illinois representative, also invoked the prospect of violence on the eve of the 2016 election. “On November 8th, I’m voting for Trump,” he wrote on Twitter shortly before Election Day. “On November 9th, if Trump loses, I’m grabbing my musket. You in?” When CNN anchor Jake Tapper asked him to clarify what he meant, Walsh said he meant “protesting” and “participating in acts of civil disobedience”—two actions where people bearing muskets are typically rare. Walsh now opposes Trump and launched a putative primary challenge against him last month; it’s unclear whether he’ll grab a musket if he loses.
There is usually a strong taboo against discussing the potential assassination of major American political figures. One out of every eleven U.S. presidents has been murdered in office, and Barack Obama’s historic presidency only amplified those quiet fears. In recent years, however, that sentiment has become less politically toxic in right-wing circles. President Donald Trump once hypothesized on the campaign trail that gun-rights proponents would kill Hillary Clinton if she took office. “If she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks,” he told a booing crowd in North Carolina in August 2016. “Although the Second Amendment people—maybe there is, I don’t know.”
Though Trump received ample criticism for the remark, it was essentially a blunter version of a popular gun-rights talking point. “The Second Amendment to the Constitution isn’t for just protecting hunting rights, and it’s not only to safeguard your right to target practice,” Texas Senator Ted Cruz remarked during his presidential campaign in 2015. “It is a constitutional right to protect your children, your family, your home, our lives, and to serve as the ultimate check against governmental tyranny—for the protection of liberty.” The implication then, as now, is that Americans can simply shoot their elected officials if they get out of hand.
One problem (among many) with this point is that not everyone agrees on what constitutes tyranny. Those who identify with Antifa, the leaderless left-wing movement that confronts far-right protesters with physical force, would argue that they are working to hinder the rise of fascist movements inside the United States. It’s hard to think of a more iconic modern example of tyranny than fascism. Cruz, however, is unpersuaded. Last month, he introduced a bill to have Antifa declared a domestic terrorist organization. Perhaps black-bloc protesters would have won his sympathy if they used semiautomatic rifles instead of milkshakes.
Indeed, some of the far-right gunmen who carried out massacres in recent years have argued that they were acting to prevent some form of tyranny, even if they didn’t use that exact word. The El Paso gunman slaughtered shoppers at a local Walmart last month to prevent what he called a “Hispanic invasion of the United States,” which he said would lead to a “one-party state.”
In February, federal investigators arrested a Coast Guard lieutenant who allegedly stockpiled guns and ammunition as part of a plot to assassinate Trump’s political opponents and prevent his possible impeachment. Among his purported targets were Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, and multiple Democratic presidential candidates. “The defendant intends to murder innocent civilians on a scale rarely seen in this country,” federal prosecutors warned a federal judge when they asked to detain him pending trial. So would gun-rights activists, apparently, if President Beto O’Rourke or President Elizabeth Warren attempted to ban some types of semiautomatic rifles.
It’s debatable whether even the most stringent gun-control measures would prevent mass shootings, and it’s doubtful that those measures would survive the Roberts Court’s scrutiny. But time and time again, these proposals reveal a troubling window into the mindset of the gun-rights activists who oppose them. That, in turn, only makes the case for enacting such measures much stronger. If the main reason you need an AR-15 is to murder civil servants and elected officials, you shouldn’t have it in the first place.