The Right to Revolution

The right to revolution works on a broad conceptual level, but it falls apart under close scrutiny.

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The gun control debate has an all-too-familiar rhythm: a cycle that starts with a mass shooting, then calls to action, and then, nothing. America returns to square one, no closer to preventing another tragedy. The debate is stagnant. One reason for this lack of change is that Democrats and Republicans are talking past each other. As a step to break the stalemate, Democrats should engage the Republican rationale for why the Founding Fathers included the Second Amendment in the Constitution. Most leading conservative commentators and thinkers interpret the Second Amendment as an effort to enshrine the right of the people to take up arms against a tyrannical autocratic government. In order to pass gun control legislation, Democrats must explore and thoroughly debunk this argument, because the idea that violent uprising is a moral and effective way to overthrow tyranny is fundamentally wrong, regardless of the Framers’ intent.

Many leading thinkers support the right to revolution, and it is likely that our Founding Fathers did too. The idea originates from the leading British Enlightenment thinker John Locke. He relays in his book, “The Second Treatise of Civil Government,” that “The people have a right to remove [a government] by force. In all States and Conditions, the true remedy of Force without Authority is to oppose Force to it.” Locke argued that people have the right to remove a government by means of revolution, should the government act “without authority”—or in other words, tyrannically. The Founders crafted a constitution that sought to best emulate the ideas of the great philosopher.

The Founding Fathers added the Second Amendment to the Constitution a few years after the American Revolution. By modern standards, the American Revolution was one of the most successful violent rebellions ever. An armed civilian army overthrew a tyranny against all odds and installed a democracy that endures to this day. It was quite likely they thought the right to a similar revolution should be protected by their young constitution.

Recently, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia declared the importance of armed civilians in resisting tyranny in 2008’s District of Columbia v. Heller, which struck down a Washington D.C. handgun ban. Scalia wrote that “When the able-bodied men of a nation are trained in arms and organized, they are better able to resist tyranny.” In this quote, Justice Scalia outlines the basis of the right to revolution.

According to its proponents, the right to revolution is a fail-safe—a nuclear option—that is to be invoked only if our government has failed. The threat of revolution acts as a deterrent to potential tyrants who would seek to curtail American liberties. If the deterrent fails, the people will rise up against the tyrannical government to reform it or install a new republic. The most important aspect of the American creed is our freedom from government control of our lives. Mass shootings, which should be prevented by law enforcement, are a small price to pay for the defense of our liberties. Tyrannies like the Soviet Union would have fallen much sooner had its starving farmers been armed.

The right to revolution works on a broad conceptual level, but it falls apart under close scrutiny. The Founding Fathers ratified the Constitution in the wake of a successful revolution against tyranny, one that not only expelled the British but also established the longest lasting democratic republic in the history of humanity. They had every reason to believe that a revolution like theirs could be possible again.

Yet, that’s not the case. The American Revolution is a historical anomaly. It remains the only violent revolution that established a well-functioning republic. If a group of guerrilla, freedom-loving revolutionaries could somehow overthrow a tyrannical U.S. in 2050, history shows that the most likely outcome would be a military dictatorship, like that of Napoleon or Simón Bolívar. Furthermore, 232 years ago, the military used technology similar to that of the civilian population. Today, the U.S. military is by far technologically superior to the civilian public. While the AR-15, a semi-automatic assault rifle and a favorite of school shooters, is military grade, civilians do not have access to automatic machine guns, airplanes, or most other military weaponry. Defenders of the right to revolution point to Vietnam as an example of an “underdog victory,” but Vietnam was the exception to the rule. Throughout history, there have been many revolts quashed by better armed governments, from Rome putting down Vercingetorix to the countless examples of the Soviet Union quashing revolt.

The right to revolution also does not work as a deterrent to tyranny. A deterrent theoretically puts a line in the sand that any potential tyrant would not cross—for fear of inciting revolt. Most defenders would claim that the line lies at either government gun confiscation or the repression of free speech. First, gun confiscation is not tyrannical, and it probably is the proper way to prevent shootings. Second, examples of tyranny are rarely stark and are usually built up to. Hitler didn’t originally advocate for the final solution. Instead, he pushed policies restricting Jews in government. Ten years of gradual persecution later, the public did not have the proper perspective with which to view the mass murder of millions of civilians. History shows that instead, an American tyrant would slowly erode freedoms. The American people would be like “a frog in slowly boiling water.” There is never a point where the pot is obviously too hot, but eventually, we will boil. The people have already tolerated real tyrannies such as McCarthyism and the internment of 100,000 Japanese people. The populace will never recognize the exact point when the government has gone too far.

The right to revolution also incorrectly assumes that tyrannical demagogues are unpopular. Dictators tend to be popular. Julius Caesar, the original dictator, was greatly loved by the people of Rome; on the Lupercal, they encouraged him to thrice accept the crown. The German people happily let Hitler take away their republic. Today, Turkey, Poland, Russia, and Hungary are ruled by popular authoritarian leaders.

Once tyrants arrive, it is too late. Killing Caesar did not save the republic. Instead, to protect our republic from tyranny, we must repair it again and again. Julius Caesars do not arise in corruption-free systems of effective governance.

As exhibited by the recent 35-day government shutdown, we are experiencing historic governmental ineptitude. The American experiment has no fail-safe. The responsibility falls on the Americans of today and the future to maintain the freedoms that exist in our society. It is that political maintenance—not armed revolution—that will be the protector of democracy and liberalism in our republic.