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Wednesday, Oct. 21, 2009

Using the Second Amendment to Attack Democracy

A Q&A with Joshua Horwitz, author of ‘Guns, Democracy and the Insurrectionist Idea’

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Those armed protesters at anti-tax and health care reform rallies aren’t an anomaly, argues Joshua Horwitz, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Coalition to Stop Gun Violence. They’re part of a fringe element of the gun rights movement that supports armed rebellion against what they see as tyrannical government control. But Horwitz, author of Guns, Democracy and the Insurrectionist Idea, argues that this viewpoint is rooted in a flawed interpretation of the Second Amendment and the early years of this nation. Horwitz, who will speak at a Wisconsin Anti-Violence Effort benefit on Oct. 22, spoke to the Shepherd about the insurrectionist idea and how it influences the current debate on gun control.

Shepherd: What is the insurrectionist idea?

Horwitz: It’s the notion that armed political violence is a legitimate part of our democratic process. Our thinking about that is clearly “no,” but it’s an idea that has gained a lot of traction among libertarian and other groups in the last couple of years. It’s the idea that you can show up armed at a health care rally and it’s a legitimate form of protest. “You can push us only so far or we will retaliate with violence.” That’s what the message is.

Of course, that is anathema to America’s most important idea, and that idea is equality. My vote is worth as much as your vote. Gun ownership does not have anything to do with your political clout. But that’s the crux of the insurrectionist idea.

Shepherd: But aren’t they just acting on their Second Amendment right to bear arms?

Horwitz: But it’s an infringement on my liberty. My liberty is that my vote carries the same weight as your vote. They cast everything in the notion of freedom, but it’s really detrimental to the rest of our freedoms. It’s a fundamental idea that we come to these forums as equal citizens and that you should respect my vote even if you don’t like it. That’s the law of the land. And to believe that you should challenge that with firearms is anathema to constitutionalism in general and our Constitution specifically.

Shepherd: But the United States was founded during a violent revolution and bearing arms protects citizens from a tyrannical government. Isn’t that patriotic?

Horwitz: Our country was founded in a violent revolution—which swept away a form of government. But I don’t think that’s what’s happening here. That’s why I call it the insurrectionist idea, which is the unlawful activity against the government.

But I think the most important lesson that people tend to forget is that the revolutionary government’s first documents, the Declaration of Independence and the Articles of Confederation, did not work as a governing principle. The Constitution was formed to correct the libertarian bias of the Declaration of Independence. So I think that while people were proud of their revolutionary service, they found that those documents were impossible [to use] to run a country. We came very close to losing the Revolutionary War because the federal government didn’t have enough power. After the Revolutionary War, most of the major cities had riots. Legislatures were basically nonfunctional. The federal government had 90 troops at their disposal—literally.

Shays’ Rebellion broke out in 1786 and a group of self-anointed militia members took over the local courts and basically [George] Washington and others said, “We’ve had enough. We need a strong central government.” So that’s what they did. It really beggars the imagination to say, “Well, we want a strong central government, but let’s ratify a Second Amendment that creates the same problem we just had.” 

Shepherd: How does that translate into the current debate on gun control laws—say, mandating background checks on all gun purchases, including private sales at gun shows?

Horwitz: If you see, as I do, that the Second Amendment’s purpose is to preserve the independence of the militias, then the states should be able to regulate the militias in any way they see fit. They may say they’re going to keep all of the guns and people can get the guns from them. At Lexington and Concord the stores of weapons were in public places, in armories. Or they could say they’d like you to keep the weapons. But, in the 1780s, they had a list of who had weapons and what type of weapons.

The only argument for not wanting to have a background check or having a record of sale on all gun sales is that they don’t want the government knowing [who owns a gun] because the government could take their guns away. To me, that is completely illegitimate. The state government has every right to know who has guns.

Shepherd: How did this sort of fringe interpretation of the Second Amendment become endorsed by mainstream politicians and Supreme Court justices?

Horwitz: That’s the scary part of this. The real battle on gun control or gun violence prevention is between those who are the insurrectionists and those who are not. Those who I label self-defenders or hunters—if you want to keep a gun in your home, or if you want to use a gun to hunt, what does it matter if you have to go through a background check to buy your gun? It doesn’t. In fact, it’s part of your service to your country to make sure that it doesn’t get into the hands of criminals.

But the vehement part [of the gun rights movement] says they don’t want that. They are not worried about having a gun for self-defense. They want a gun to take on the government. Yes, it is very scary. A lot of the major presidential candidates—Mike Huckabee, Ron Paul—very clearly said the Second Amendment is not about duck hunting, that it’s about the ability to take on a tyrannical government. Then you have the [D.C. v.Heller] case, where you have [Supreme Court Justice Antonin] Scalia, all over his footnotes, saying that this right is based on the historic ability to take on the government, and more importantly makes the case that an independent citizens militia is an important part of this right.

Think about that. The rebels in Shays’ Rebellion were an independent militia. Our founders came together and drafted a new Constitution exactly because they did not want independent militias. Now we have a Supreme Court decision saying that’s a historic part of this. It’s very disturbing and scary.