Why gun laws don't pass

Many Americans believe the Second Amendment gives them the right to mount an armed insurrection

Ben Carson
(Image credit: AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)

Ben Carson has performed a valuable public service. When the good doctor last week likened gun control to Nazi Germany's confiscation of weapons, he cut to the heart of America's debate over guns. Advocates of "commonsense" regulations, such as bans on assault rifles, 30-round magazines, and armor-piercing bullets, are dumbfounded that these restrictions cannot make it through Congress. But as Carson made clear, Second Amendment absolutists are not only concerned with their ability to shoot burglars or deer. They insist on their right to buy — indeed, to stockpile — military-grade weaponry because they believe that someday, they may need to wage a guerrilla war against a tyrannical president and the U.S. military. "You may think a 30-round magazine is too big," RedState founder Erick Erickson once said. "Under the real purpose of the Second Amendment, a 30-round magazine might be too small."

This is no fringe view: The "insurrectionist" theory of the Second Amendment, as historians call it, is deeply embedded in America's gun culture. It holds that the Founders expressly built an escape clause into the Constitution, giving citizens "the right to bear arms" so they could violently overthrow the government should it defy the people's will. A 2013 Fairleigh Dickinson University poll found that 29 percent of Americans agreed with the statement, "In the next few years, an armed revolution might be necessary in order to protect our liberties." As Carson put it in his guileless way, no pile of bullet-riddled bodies can be "more devastating than taking the right to arm ourselves away," since liberty itself is at stake. This belief animates the adamant opposition to gun laws, and until gun control advocates engage it directly and effectively, nothing will change.

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William Falk

William Falk is editor-in-chief of The Week, and has held that role since the magazine's first issue in 2001. He has previously been a reporter, columnist, and editor at the Gannett Westchester Newspapers and at Newsday, where he was part of two reporting teams that won Pulitzer Prizes.