"Universal access to firearms is indistinguishable from Emancipation." - Glenn Beck at the 2013 NRA Convention
Responding to the National Rifle Association's annual convention in Houston earlier this month, Connecticut's freshman Senator Chris Murphy noted, "The NRA kind of announced this weekend they're morphing into a paramilitary group, that essentially they're going to be advocating for armed resistance to the U.S. government." Law professor Stanley Fish mused, "The more militant members of the NRA and most of its leaders may be un-American ... [John Wilkes] Booth's modern successors are saying that a house in the hands of tyrants does not deserve to stand and they are ready to bring it down with their constitutionally protected guns." They weren't exaggerating.
The NRA didn't just throw down the gauntlet to our government in Houston. It also articulated a vision of America and its ideals that is the antithesis of what our Founders intended, and which would mean the abolition of our Constitution.
There can longer be any doubt that the NRA's leadership views our government as a dangerous enemy that must be defeated with violence and force of arms. The rhetoric at their convention was consistently apocalyptic. Keynote speaker Glenn Beck declared:
The freedom of all mankind, make no mistake, is at stake ... Our liberty, our way of life, is being legislated out of existence. Our rights are being diminished by a ruling class of powerful elites. They're growing out of control. We are in a precarious situation. We are. The hour grows late. We have a government that is now run by radical revolutionaries ... They know, if you lose the Second Amendment you certainly lose the First and the Fourth and the Fifth, the right to a grand jury, and the 10th and the 14th and the 19th...
Elaborating further on this conspiracy, Beck suggested that the modest effort in Congress to expand background checks to private sales of firearms conducted at commercial venues like gun shows was the pretext to the enslavement and mass murder of American civilians:
Believe me, President Obama, Michael Bloomberg, Joe Manchin, and even our beloved Pat Toomey... they sure the hell saw you coming. The Founders also warned about a time when the government would take the guns. They called that a "monopoly of violence." Because they knew that happens to governments and governments turn against their people because the people go to sleep. And if a government had a monopoly of violence, tyranny then would go undefeated. No one would be able to stop it. And if you think, "Oh, gee, there he goes again with his crazy ideas," ask the Japanese-Americans about the internment camps of World War II, done by the beloved progressive President FDR through executive order. If you don't believe that the government can do terrible things to its citizens, please explain to me the Lakota Indians ... What do you suppose the African-American in 1850 could have done with a gun? ... A lot of times people couldn't do anything about it because they didn't have a gun because their right had been taken away by the government ... Racists like James Earl Ray killed one. Disturbed killers like Adam Lanza killed 26. But history shows government kills millions.
In truth, our Founders understood full well that a "monopoly on force" is the fundamental organizing principle of any nation-state. As the man who drafted our Constitution and the Second Amendment, James Madison, told Patrick Henry at the Virginia ratification convention, "There never was a government without force. What is the meaning of government? An institution to make people do their duty. A government leaving it to a man to do his duty, or not, as he pleases, would be a new species of government, or rather no government at all." Madison also opined in a 1788 letter to Thomas Jefferson, "It has been remarked that there is a tendency in all Governments to an augmentation of power at the expense of liberty. But the remark, as usually understood, does not appear to me well founded."
Madison and the men who traveled to Philadelphia to draft our Constitution believed that the rule of law, as enshrined in the Constitution, would "establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to...our Posterity."
Beck, LaPierre, and the NRA's leadership, however, have lost all faith in the rule of law. NRA International Affairs Subcommittee Chairman John Bolton made a very revealing remark at their convention when he said, "We have a President who seems determined some way or another to restrict our Second Amendment rights. He doesn't have adequate time to protect American interests and American citizens around the world. And I think these two phenomena are very close related because I think the President has a very different view of what security and freedom mean than we do." Put another way, "The government won't protect us because it wants to control us. Only privately held firearms protect us." Wayne LaPierre echoed this notion, stating, "No bill in Congress... will ever change that inescapable fact that the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun." Beck even asserted that armed citizens -- and not police -- are America's "first responders."
If this is starting to sound a lot like vigilantism and anarchy to you, you're getting warm. And Beck pretty much spelled that out for the NRA faithful:
We fight against those who stand against what our Founders called "Nature's Law." Those who believe they are qualified to make the decisions for the collective. May I humbly, may I humbly remind them that God himself does not make decisions for the collective. God sent his only son to help individuals. God himself saves the individual thus saving the collective. While we have a responsibility to love and to cherish and to care and to feed one another, in the end it is only by each of us taking up that responsibility that we all progress as individuals and people. We stand and fight against those who deny the Creator, deny his power, and then have the audacity to grant to themselves the collective power that even God himself denies. Please hear me clearly. This is not about president or parties. We wrestle against those powers and principalities, against the rulers of this darkness in this world, we stand against spiritual wickedness in high places, and we will fight them with the eternal truths that man once felt were so obvious that he declared them "self-evident" ... Each of us will play an instrument in God's orchestra and it will ensure that the flame of man's liberty is not snuffed out. But it will be the people in this room and those anywhere upon the face of the earth who carry the understanding and can verbally defend Nature's God and Nature's Law, it is in the hands of those in this room and all with eyes and ears who can see and hear to protect liberty.
Beck has it backwards. Men form governments in the first place to remove themselves from the state of nature ("Nature's Law," or as it's more commonly known, "Survival of the Fittest"). Why? As John Locke put it, in his "Second Treatise of Civil Government":
Men being, as has been said, by nature, all free, equal, and independent, no one can be put out of this estate, and subjected to the political power of another, without his own consent. The only way whereby any one divests himself of his natural liberty, and puts on the bonds of civil society, is by agreeing with other men to join and unite into a community for their comfortable, safe, and peaceable living one amongst another, in a secure enjoyment of their properties, and a greater security against any, that are not of it.
Our Founders, of course, consented to exactly such an agreement through the Constitution (and Locke's writings were a strong influence on Madison's thinking). Furthermore, they knew from firsthand experience that not all individuals were responsible citizens. As Madison famously said, "If men were angels, no government would be necessary."
Additionally, Beck's spiritual proselytizing seems ignorant of one of the bedrock principles of our Constitution, the "wall of separation between Church and State." Standing on the NRA stage, he ranted about "Muslim extremists" and told their members, "Wear ['Christian'] as a badge of honor. It's the only thing that will save us now." "We will win by strapping on the full armor of God," he added. To my ears, that is a salvo against our most cherished value of political equality that derives not from our religion, but from our citizenship. Moreover, I find it deeply ironic that the NRA, which claims to be "the nation's oldest civil rights organization," would have a keynote speaker so deliberately exclusionary to millions of people in America.
When "the guys with the guns make the rules" in a society, the concept of "one person, one vote" goes out the window. And the NRA's leaders have made it patently clear that they will no longer abide by democratically-enacted laws. At the NRA convention, Beck warned outright, "They feel they must regulate us until we comply. I will not comply." LaPierre agreed, warning, "Without [the Second Amendment], we really aren't free at all ... We will never surrender our guns -- never." In Beck's mind, the NRA faithful has "the responsibility to throw off the chains of tyranny."
The great irony here is that the Second Amendment's author warned our nation about the danger of armed mobs taking the law into their own hands. Shays' Rebellion and similar uprisings were a major impetus behind the drafting our Constitution. They scared our Founders and made them realize that the federal government was too weak under the Articles of Confederation. It's no coincidence, too, that the Constitution states the one of the primary purposes of the Militia is to "suppress Insurrections," and defines the crime of Treason. In the immortal words of Abraham Lincoln, "It is safe to assert that no government proper ever had a provision in its organic law for its own termination."
There are consequences to the NRA's perverse and dangerous ideology. Pulitzer Prize winner Charles Simic recently wrote at The New York Review of Books blog: "One doesn't need to be a prophet to predict that sooner or later [the 310 million firearms in private hands in the United States] will be used to settle political differences in our already extraordinarily polarized country. As someone who by the age of six was used to hearing gun shots, explosions, and screams and to seeing dead and wounded people during World War II, the German occupation, and the civil war in Yugoslavia, I learned early that the primary purpose of a weapon is to kill people. Anyone who tells you that having a lot of them around will make us safer is either out to make money out of dead children or living in a fool's paradise."
With the NRA, it's a little of both. But let's heed Simic's words and not forget what is at stake here. Our Founders drafted the Constitution to obviate the need for political violence, to allow us to settle our differences peacefully, democratically -- even in cases of obvious government overreach. The NRA has clearly reached a point where it has no faith whatsoever in our Founding documents or the men who drafted them. It's long past time for average Americans to stand up to the NRA's leadership and reclaim the values of freedom and liberty which they have so perverted. Failing to do so will send us on a path back to the future that Simic so vividly describes.