(msn) — The crowded room exploded in thunderous cheers and applause. A bill to make it a felony to possess gun magazines larger than 10 rounds had just been unexpectedly killed by its sponsor in the middle of debate before the Maryland House of Delegates Judiciary Committee after it was met with rancor by the audience and opposing delegates.
It was a powerful display of the continued influence of politically active gun owners mere weeks after new national calls for gun control after 17 were slain in Parkland, Fla.
America has seen a number of mass shootings in the past year: Las Vegas. Sutherland Springs. Stoneman Douglas. In those three instances, the shooter used AR-15 platform rifles.The shooters in Las Vegas and Sutherland Springs used the high-capacity magazines the defeated Maryland bill sought to outlaw.
Most Americans who plan to march on Washington Saturday against gun violence don’t believe that private citizens should own high-capacity semi-automatic rifles. They don’t understand what many gun rights defenders see as the heart of the Second Amendment: The defense against a tyrannical government.
In recent debates, gun rights activists have offered a number of defenses of what gun control advocates call assault weapons, from the rifles not being more deadly than other firearms to illegalization leaving them only in the hands of criminals. The tyranny argument is often overlooked by people who assume this argument is limited to people on the extreme, militia-end of the gun rights spectrum. But it’s become common among gun owners and mainstream conservative figures.
Shannon Alford, the National Rifle Association’s Maryland liaison, was among the scores of people who came to the state House of Delegates on March 6 to offer feedback on a number of gun-related pieces of legislation being considered in the wake of the shooting in Parkland, Fla.
“The Second Amendment is not about hunting,” Alford told USA TODAY. “It is not about competitive shooting. The Second Amendment is about self-defense. It’s about being able to stop people who would do you harm, whether that’s a criminal or the government.”
‘A 30-round magazine might be too small’
That NRA position has been repeated almost word for word by several well-known conservative figures in recent years.
“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,” Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, said in a fundraising letter for his 2016 presidential campaign. “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.”
Conservative blogger Erick Erickson said the Second 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.” And Erickson believes that is the main reason gun control advocates don’t understand the need for high-capacity semi-automatic firearms.
That is why there is so little common ground about assault rifles — even charitably ignoring the fact that there really is no such thing. If the 2nd Amendment is to protect the citizenry from even their own government, then the citizenry should be able to be armed …
You may think a 30 round magazine is too big. Under the real purpose of the second amendment, a 30 round magazine might be too small.
‘Insurrectionist’ goes mainstream
Adam Winkler, a constitutional law professor at UCLA, called the idea that a right to fight against government tyranny is enshrined in the Bill of Rights the “insurrectionist theory” of the Second Amendment. (So named because an insurrectionist is someone who takes part in an armed rebellion.)
“That insurrectionist theory used to be a fringe theory of the Second Amendment but it’s become much more mainstream,” said Winkler, the author of Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America.
Winkler attributed the surge in the theory’s popularity to the increasingly extreme language used by the National Rifle Association and “a desire to frame the Second Amendment in a way that will protect military-style assault rifles.”
If the insurrectionist theory is accepted, then efforts to ban semi-automatic rifles like the AR-15 would be unconstitutional because those weapons would be exactly what Americans would “need to fight back against the government,” Winkler said.
While Winkler agrees the Second Amendment “has the happy impact of deterring tyranny because the citizenry is armed,” he does not believe the Founding Fathers intended to “give the people the right to rise up against the government.”
“The Framers understood the right to bear arms as an individual right, but it wasn’t a right to stage a revolution,” Winkler said. “The Constitution doesn’t provide the seeds for its own destruction.”
Calls to arms can backfire
In addition to a questionable legal foundation, the insurrectionist theory of the Second Amendment often doesn’t resonate well with the general public, particularly when politicians and public figures hint at it.
During her failed 2010 Senate campaign, Nevada Republican — and tea party favorite — Sharron Angle was widely derided for saying the Founding Fathers included the Second Amendment in the Constitution “for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government.”
Angle said people were “really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies” as a response to the then-Democratically controlled Congress, which many people interpreted as a suggestion that armed insurrection might be necessary.
During the 2016 campaign, President Trump took heat for suggesting that “Second Amendment people” might be able to do something about Hillary Clinton if she won the election.
And U.S. Rep. Tom Suozzi, D-N.Y., was criticized for seeming to suggest during a March 12 town hall that armed insurrection could be necessary if Trump ignores the law.
“This is where the Second Amendment comes in quite frankly, because you know, what if the president was to ignore the courts? What would you do? What would we do?” Suozzi said.
The four boxes
For most Americans, even those who believe in the right to insurrection, the notion of rising up against the government remains a very far-fetched scenario.
Jeff Hulbert, the founder of the Maryland gun rights group Patriot Picket, was one of the people who came to the Maryland House of Delegates to voice his concern about the proposed gun control legislation.
Hulbert believes that gun ownership is a “checks and balances issue for anybody who reveres our democratic republic.” But he compares his right to take up arms in case of the government reaching what he calls an “intolerable” situation to a fire extinguisher kept in case of a possible emergency.
“It’s simply there,” Hulbert said. “It’s been written into the structure for a reason, but it doesn’t mean that it’s activated every election cycle.”
Hulbert said there are “four boxes” that can be employed to resist the government: the ballot box, the soap box, the jury box and, lastly, the ammo box.
“Nobody I know believes that we have reached the end of the line for the four boxes,” Hulbert said. “We’re at the level of fear-mongering when we talk about the tyrannical overthrow of a government because our election cycles have seemed to work pretty well.”
Hulbert’s fellow Patriot Picket member Jim McGuire agreed.
“If we were close to the tipping point, these people and us, we wouldn’t be here,” McGuire said. “We have the opportunity to speak our minds and have our voices heard and participate in the legislative process. It’s still working. If this place was empty, I’d be worried.”