A conversation with a libertarian left me fearful of this Bundy fervor
I recently had a rather hostile debate with a staunch libertarian involving, of course, the Second Amendment. The nature of this heated exchange surrounded the idea of whether the citizenry of the United States had the explicit right to overthrow their elected government by force of arms. I of course argued that no such clause exists for citizens to use arms against their government. This libertarian believed otherwise, and this exchange made me ponder the central question: do Americans have a right to forcefully overthrow the government?
This is not an easy topic, and I already know many will disagree with my assessments. What the libertarian argued was that the citizenry had a right to use arms against the government if that government “defied the constitution.” Whenever I asked what type of government that would be, he only said “sort of what we have now.” Sigh. Needless to say I didn’t get many specifics on the matter.
He claimed that the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms, automatically gives legal justification for their use against said government. He claimed the Amendment was set up specifically for the purpose of allowing the citizenry a means to forcefully topple our elected government if it “was deemed unconstitutional by the people.” I continued to ask who are the “people”, and under what legal basis would they decide the government was being unconstitutional? Still no real answers except, “the local voters and their local representatives.” Okay.
For context, this conversation began over an earlier talk about the Cliven Bundy fiasco in Nevada. An armed fervor from right-wing gun nuts is elevating the already strong gun culture of the US. The libertarian, of course, defended what Bundy and his cohorts were doing. I raised objection to that, which caused the libertarian to spurt off about the nature of the Second Amendment and the citizen’s right to use weapons against the federal government. The libertarian even went as far as to say the military has the legal right to remove the president and close Congress, and should probably do so. I asked which part of the constitution permitted a military coup d’etat, but to no avail.
My responses to his assertions were more or less based on my rather centered view on history. I explained that while the Second Amendment does give citizens the right to keep firearms, it does not list any explicit right for citizens to use these weapons against federal or state officials. Nowhere in the amendment does it even hint at such a thing.
The Second Amendment was put in place for several reasons. One major reason was, at the infancy of the United States, there was no standing federal army across the territories of the new nation. Most of the country’s defense came from State Militias, as the idea of large standing armies being a sign of tyranny was widespread. Also, the States viewed themselves as their own sovereign entities, and very few saw the other states as one and the same.
The Union was still fairly loose in this age, and a lack of a standing federal army meant that army citizen and state sanctioned militias were crucial to maintaining a defense network in the new United States. The Second Amendment was also widely supported by slave owners, who desired the right to quickly arm the white populace in case of nasty slave revolts.
The federal government, however, never set up any set of rules to allow its own arbitrary overthrow. Quite the contrary, our system of checks and balances is meant to curtail such events. It was always understood that an armed populace would be part of a State Controlled militia, and not merely individual citizens acting on their own accord. Events like the Whiskey Rebellion of 1791 and the War of 1812 revealed major flaws in relying on militias for defense, in which government policy slowly shifted more towards a standing federal army.
In short, the Second Amendment was put in place for complex reasons. There is no clear constitutional justification for an armed overthrow of the US government by its citizens. What Bundy and men like him are doing is absolutely out of bounds from a constitutional standpoint. Yet explaining this to a gun-nut libertarian is very much like teaching a cat how to bark. Good luck my friend. And they call themselves “patriots.”
The conversation did not affect the libertarian much. I am wondering why I even discussed it with him. I have become unnerved by the idea of armed citizens shooting at and/or overthrowing an elected government, without a clear constitutional course for it. I am scared that one day these sentiments will lead to blood being spilled… again. I hope these Second Amendment “defenders” know what they’re getting themselves into when they fire those first shots into the unity of their country.