This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.
“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.” (Romans 13:1-2)
Protection Against the Federal Government
In my previous article on guns and killing, I showed that the original intent of those who framed and ratified the United States’ Bill of Rights was to provide the means whereby citizens of America could defend themselves against an oppressive federal government. As Erick Erickson helpfully explained things in his recent article, ‘The Purpose of the Second Amendment’
“The amendment is not about sports. It is not about recreation. It is not about hunting. It is only partly about defending yourself from a criminal.
The second amendment is about ensuring a ‘free state.’
On April 19, 1775, British regulars marched on Lexington and Concord to seize the guns of American colonists that had been stockpiled in case of revolution.
It may be an abstract concept for us. It may be distant. But when the 1st Congress of the United States met in 1789, the memory of 1775 was fresh. More so, what they saw as an abridgment of their freedoms in 1775, they viewed as an abridgment of their freedoms going back to the Glorious Revolution of 1688…. The 2nd Amendment, contrary to much of today’s conversation, has just as much to do with the people protecting themselves from tyranny as it does burglars.”
But how far should these provisions extend? When the Second Amendment gives us “the right to bear arms” does this mean I have a right to my own bombs and laser weapons? Does this give me a right to possess my own personal lethal drone? This is not the place to address these types of details, other than to say that if we are working within the original intent of those who framed and ratified the Second Amendment, then in principle the people of America have a right to possess whatever type of weapons are necessary to defend themselves against an oppressive federal government, provided the exercise of such rights does not clash with other obligations.
(As an aside, when I use the term ‘rights’ I am referring to legal rights and not, so called, “natural rights.” Legal rights are based on the contingencies of our current political system as regulated by the constitution. But is the right to bear arms also an inalienable ‘natural right’ given by God to all people at all times? Many of the founding fathers thought so, but I’m not so sure that inalienable natural rights even exist. I explain why in my blog post Natural Rights vs. Legal Rights.)
The need to take provision against the contingency of an oppressive federal government isn’t as far-fetched as it might seem, as there has been more than one occasion in the history of our nation when the federal government invaded—or, in the case of the Jackson administration, simply prepared to invade—one of the states.
Let’s also not forget that most of the major genocides of the twentieth century occurred when governments decided to kill their own citizens, or certain people groups within the nation. Such genocides typically occurred after policies of systematic disarming so that the citizens were unable to defend themselves. (This is a point emphasized in the graphic Innocents Betrayed video.) Throughout the modern age there has been an unvarying precedent for atheist governments to tyrannize and kill their own subjects. Given this precedent, it would be foolish to give up our only means to resist tyranny at precisely a time when militant atheism and secularism are again on the rise.
Do I expect genocide to happen on American soil in the near future? Absolutely not. Do I expect such atrocities to occur sometime in the distant future as America becomes increasingly statist, and as racial and religious tensions continue to polarize the nation? Again, probably not. However, it would be naïve to think that America is somehow immune to the types of genocidal atrocities that have happened in ostensibly “civilized” Western nations. Wisdom requires us to think ahead, not simply to what is probable, but also to what is possible.
If you haven’t guessed by now, I am against our President’s proposals to limit the private ownership of certain types of guns. I am even against the idea that firearms should have to be registered, which historically has been a slippery slope towards confiscations. But that doesn’t mean we should uncritically accept all the propaganda that is being put forward by the pro-gun lobby. My friend Brad Littlejohn has recently pointed out some of the really bad arguments being used by the right-wing community in defense of firearms. To those concerns I would like to add the sad observation that among the pro-gun Christian community, there tends to be a glorification of violence and even a trivial approach to killing, But that will be the subject of a future article in this series. Let’s wrap up by returning to the intention of the founding fathers when they wrote the Second Amendment to the Bill of Rights.
Insurrections and Vigilantism?
Checks and balanced were crucially important to the founders. That is why they developed the system of government that they did, based on the division of powers between the legislative, executive and judicial branches. It should also be clear from the previous article that the founders also believed the power of the people was crucial in this dynamic political balance. They believed that the authority of an armed populace was a hedge against federal tyranny. An armed populace was necessary to prevent the Executive Branch from devolving into a dictatorship since it kept the power of federal officers contingent on, and accountable to, something bigger and more powerful.
Some who have recognized these historical facts have falsely assumed that this gives them a charter for vigilantism. However, the constitutional right to bear arms, and the theoretical possibility of defending ourselves against an oppressive federal government, does not legitimize vigilantism as soon as we think officials in Washington have overstepped their mark. The constitutional right to private gun ownership does not give us the right to start our own private wars.
When those who framed and ratified the constitution made provision for what Jefferson called “the spirit of resistance,” they did not envision situations where individuals would take the law into their own hands or participate in local uprisings, even to defend their liberties. That type of insurgency had already been tried during Shays’ Rebellion of 1786-87, and it was out of a desire to avoid similar catastrophes that the Constitutional Convention convened in the first place. During Washington’s administration a tax protest known as the Whiskey Rebellion took place in Western Pennsylvania in 1791–1794, and President Washington rode at the head of a group of soldiers to suppress the insurrection.
The right to resist a tyrannical federal government was a burden the founders envisioned resting with the states or other organs of local government. Private citizens were expected to keep arms for when the states needed a militia to protect themselves from threats, including the potential threat of a tyrannical federal government.
Let’s take a concrete example of how this might play out in practice in today’s world. Suppose the federal government suddenly decided to unconstitutionally confiscate a hundred homes in the middle of Idaho to turn that area into a national park. Would it be ok for the families to use force to defend their homes? Provided that the direct and immediate danger was only to their property and not their lives, the answer is no. To start killing federal officials in that situation would amount to a private war against the government and is incompatible with the scriptural admonitions to be subject to the governing authorities. (Romans 13:1; 1 Peter 2:13)
Now suppose that in the same situation, the state of Idaho, or even a county sheriff, decided to defend that land against federal encroachment, and then asked the people to form a militia to assist with that. Would that be legitimate? According to the founding fathers, the answer is absolutely yes.
The difference between the two situations is this: in the first case, citizens are taking the law into their own hands, which is rebellion. In the second scenario, citizens are working with the law and defending the institutions established by law. It is this second type of situation that the founders envisioned when they made provision for the people to defend themselves against federal tyranny. For example, in The Federalist Papers, Alexander Hamilton noted that “It may safely be received as an axiom in our political system, that the state governments will in all possible contingencies afford complete security against invasions of the public liberty by the national authority.” (Federalist # 28). Similarly, James Madison noted that “The use of force against the [individual] state would probably be considered by the party attacked as a dissolution of all previous compacts by which it might be bound.”
John Calvin made essentially the same point in his chapter “On Civil Government” in the Institutes, where he allowed that it is sometimes legitimate for magistrates or local officials to fight against oppressive overlords:
“I am so far from forbidding them [magistrates, or local officials, of the people] to withstand, in accordance with their duty, the fierce licentiousness of kings, that, if they wink at kings who violently fall upon and assault the lowly common folk, I declare that their dissimulation involves nefarious perfidy, because they dishonestly betray the freedom of the people, of which they know that they have been appointed protectors by God’s ordinance.
The Lone Gunman and the Culture of Rights
If we do not appreciate this distinction between a local government’s lawful defensive measures against an oppressive authority, on the one hand, vs. anarchical uprisings and insurrections, on the other, then the intentions of the founding fathers will be misconstrued to legitimize a lone gunman mentality or vigilantism. Within the American mythos, the lone gunman is an archetype that runs deep and has a compelling attraction, especially to conservatives. One of the problems is that this archetype can be easily fuelled by the culture of rights that has become so pervasive.
We live in a culture of rights, where rights are no longer understood in the way our Christian founders understood them, having been collapsed into little more than personal entitlement to whatever I happen to want. The pervasive sense of entitlement leads to everything from our litigious society to road rage drivers feels their rights have been violated by another road-user. When this culture of rights is combined with the sense that government is the enemy, it produces a deadly cocktail that can lead to some people feeling they need to take the law into their own hands. The potential for quick conflict becomes heightened.
For this very reason, we should be concerned about those conservatives who have been threatening violence to defend their right to bear arms, or those who have taken up the fighting talk of Charlton Heston’s slogan: “I’ll give you my gun when you pry it from my cold, dead hands.” There were atrocities far worse than gun-confiscation that were happening in the Roman Empire in Paul’s day, but Paul didn’t write to the Romans and tell them to take up arms to defend their rights: he told them to submit to the governing authorities.
Once again, this doesn’t mean it would be wrong to participate in, or even to prepare for, a militia under a dully appointed representative of local government (i.e., a state governor, a county sheriff, a town mayor, etc). To be sure, it would have to be an extreme situation that would justify that type of civil violence, but the Constitution of our land (which is, after all, the highest authority in America) made provision for such situation when it gave American citizens the right to bear arms.
This also doesn’t mean that there is no place for quiet and discreet civil disobedience on an individual level. If the state were ever to require that we turn in our firearms, or participate in activities that would make future confiscations possible, there may be ways to quietly and secretly resist without involving ourselves in open, visible rebellion. All God-ordained authorities are limited, and these limitations are especially relevant when it comes to protecting those we love.
How should we behave if the above options are not available to us and the only way to stop the government taking our firearms by force is to openly fight as private individuals? In such a situation, would we be still required to submit to the governing authorities (i.e., Romans 13), or would we be called to imitate the example of Shammah the son of Asa, who stood and defended his lentil patch against invading Philistines (2 Samuel 23:11-12)? This is purely hypothetical question because none of President’s Obama’s proposals seek to confiscate firearms. Yet it is a question that we would still do well to consider. The answer would probably depend on how immediate the threat to our lives and safety was. However, even if we conclude that fighting would be justified in such a situation, this is something very different to the bravado of the “make my day” mentality currently prevalent in so much of the pro-gun movement, as scores of private individuals eagerly prepare to fight their own private wars against the government.
Behind the “make my day” mentality is often a wrong approach to violence that is pervasive even among Christians and is fuelled by our entertainment technologies. But that will be the topic of the next article in this series.
For further insight into this topic, read Robin’s other article ‘Why Vigilantism is a Sin.’ Also read The Providence Foundation’s article ‘The Right to Keep and Bear Arms. If you have children, consider buy With My Rifle by My Side: A Second Amendment Lesson from our online store. The book teaches gun safety through the experiences of a boy with his dad.