On Tuesday, Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump appeared to joke that Second Amendment enthusiasts might consider assassinating Hillary Clinton should she win the presidency. “Hillary wants to abolish, essentially abolish, the Second Amendment,” Trump said of his presidential rival. “By the way, and if she gets to pick,” he continued, “if she gets to pick her judges, nothing you can do, folks. Although the Second Amendment people, maybe there is, I don’t know.”
We can interpret this remark in various ways: As a “joke gone bad,” in House Speaker Paul Ryan’s timorous assessment; as a terrible smear against actual gun owners; as a vague but knowing incitement of political violence; or even as stochastic terrorism. (His campaign claims Trump was talking about using “political power,” against Clinton’s nominees, an almost comically implausible interpretation.) However we construe Trump’s latest outrageous utterance, we should give the man some credit. The implication, if taken seriously, is only the very logical conclusion of a Second Amendment interpretation the Republican Party has begun to adopt: that the Constitution grants Americans the right to violently revolt against an oppressive government.
Among far-right gun supporters, it has long been an article of faith that the Second Amendment was designed to protect against tyranny. This “insurrectionist” theory of the amendment, as constitutional scholar Adam Winkler calls it, views the right to bear arms as a safety valve against a despotic government. Under this theory, the Second Amendment doesn’t just guarantee a right to self-defense: It secures a right of the people to violently revolt against an oppressive state.
The National Rifle Association and other gun advocacy groups have peddled the insurrectionist theory for years. In 1994, NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre wrote that “the people have the right, must have the right, to take whatever measures necessary, including force, to abolish oppressive government.” That same year, Bill Bridgewater, former executive director of the National Alliance of Stocking Gun Dealers, asserted that we must protect the right to bear arms because our founding documents require “all citizens to rise up against an oppressive government.” This rhetoric grew ubiquitous enough on the right that then-Sen. John Ashcroft adopted a slightly subtler version of it in 1998, claiming that “a citizenry armed with the right” to “possess firearms” is “less likely to fall victim to a tyrannical central government.” As the Atlantic’s Garrett Epps explained in 2011, the insurrectionist attitude is best captured by this widely shared quote attributed to Thomas Jefferson:
When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.
There’s one problem with this alleged Jefferson quote, however: It’s completely made up. (Why, after all, would Jefferson and the framers want to plant a veritable time bomb in the founding charter for their new government?) In fact, the entire insurrectionist theory of the Second Amendment is fabricated; no serious constitutional scholar, including those who support an individual right to bear arms, accepts its validity. Indeed, like so much Second Amendment scholarship, the insurrectionist theory is pure pop originalism: a very modern argument overlaid with old (and sometimes fabricated) quotes to lend it the sheen of constitutional legitimacy.
You certainly won’t find the insurrectionist theory in either of the Supreme Court’s last major decisions interpreting the Second Amendment. These opinions, our best guide to what the Second Amendment means in both theory and practice today, are rooted firmly in the theory of self-defense. In 2008’s District of Columbia v. Heller, the court barred the federal government from banning handguns in the home because “the Second Amendment right” was designed to protect “the inherent right of self-defense.” Two years later, in McDonald v. Chicago, the court forbade states and localities from outlawing firearm ownership (within certain limits) as well, describing gun ownership as a “fundamental right” necessary to preserve “an individual right to self-defense.” McDonald also reiterated Heller’s assertion that “self-defense … was the central component of the right” to bear arms.
Despite this clear language, the ersatz insurrectionist theory has crept into our modern political discourse. Republican Senate candidate Sharron Angle stirred up a small scandal in 2010 when she said Americans might consider “Second Amendment remedies” to control an unchecked Congress. But Angle was only stating concretely what most Americans now appear to believe abstractly: A 2013 Rasmussen poll found that 65 percent of Americans believe “the purpose of the Second Amendment to ensure that people are able to protect themselves from tyranny.”
In retrospect, the firestorm over Angle’s comments feels quaint. Today, prominent Republican politicians routinely promote the insurrectionist theory of the Second Amendment with no qualifications. Before winning a Senate seat in 2014, Iowa Republican Joni Ernst described her belief in “the right to defend myself and my family—whether it’s from an intruder, or whether it’s from the government, should they decide that my rights are no longer important.” In his 2014 book God, Guns, Grits, and Gravy, former Arkansas governor and frequent Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee seemed to endorse an actual “revolution” against “Big Government’s overreach.” During his presidential campaign, Ben Carson described the Second Amendment as a defense against “tyranny,” insisting that it was ratified to “make sure” that “the government remains constrained.”
Republicans deploy this kind of language so frequently that it is rarely even newsworthy anymore. You hear it in speeches and interviews all the time; interviewing a Nebraska Republican lawmaker in 2015, I was startled to hear him proclaim that the purpose of the Second Amendment was to allow an “armed population” to revolt against a democracy that “did not function well.” Echoing this sentiment in April, Texas Republican senator and failed presidential candidate Ted Cruz wrote to his supporters:
The 2nd Amendment to the Constitution isn't for just protecting hunting rights, and it's not only to safeguard your right to target practice. It is a Constitutional right to protect your children, your family, your home, our lives, and to serve as the ultimate check against governmental tyranny—for the protection of liberty.
Cruz’s email carried the subject line: “2nd Amendment against tyranny.”
Taken at face value, all of this rhetoric adds up to one very clear belief: If you believe the United States government has grown tyrannical, the Second Amendment protects your right to rebel violently against it, using firearms, to reclaim your liberty. Cruz and his ilk rarely specify precisely what this revolt would look like, but the implication is extraordinarily clear: Armed Americans should shoot enough government officials as is necessary to overthrow perceived oppression. The Cruz-endorsed insurrectionist theory of the Second Amendment, in other words, is basically a tacit permission slip to assassinate political leaders whom one deems to be oppressive.
And that, it seems, is precisely what Trump implied on Tuesday. Should Clinton get elected and appoint ostensibly oppressive Supreme Court justices, the logical conclusion of the insurrectionist theory is that “Second Amendment people” should use their constitutional right to resist tyranny by shooting the president or her judges. One man’s president is another man’s tyrant, and the GOP’s current framing of gun rights quite explicitly licenses an armed revolt against tyrants. Oppression, much like the Second Amendment, is in the eye of the beholder. And Trump has just given his very eager supporters another excuse to view Clinton as a tyrannical oppressor—and given instructions to act accordingly.