A while ago at a gun control blog that I frequent, namely Mikeb302000, we had a discussion about whether the Constitution of the United States authorizes a rebellion against the govenerment.
This question arose because some who advocate for gun rights have argued that the Second Amendment was written to give the American people the power to rebel against a U.S. government gone agley. This line of reasoning suggests that since the Founders had just fought a war of rebellion against the British Empire, they understood the need for that option to be available to future generations.
Of course, this thinking ignores two facts, human nature and the nature of law:
1. Rebels declare themselves to be against authority precisely until they are themselves the authorities. At that point, they see themselves as deserving the loyalty of the people they rule.
2. Legal systems rarely, if ever, include permission to overthrow them, even if pressing conditions exist.
So do we have a right to rebel against our government?
Whenever government overreaches, it loses some measure of its justification for existing. We in the United States have been fortunate for a long time that our government has kept itself within sufficient bounds that its excesses have been remedied–for the most part, but not altogether, alas–through the courts and legislatures. The War on Terror of the last more than a decade has called into question the legitimacy of our recent and current administrations, as we have seen within the last few days, thanks to the revelations of NSA spying on American telephone calls.
If people can’t trust not only the executive branch but also don’t trust Congress, and don’t trust federal judges, to make sure that we’re abiding by the Constitution with due process and rule of law, then we’re going to have some problems here.
I do not take comfort in that. In fact, I hope that we do not come to a point at which our government loses all justification and deserves to be overthrown. But the question remains as to how such a rebellion would itself be justified. I answer that with the following two points:
1. The American Revolution was based on the premise that the new government to be created by the rebels would offer better protection of the rights of the people than the British government. It’s the equivalent of a man asking a woman to divorce her husband on the grounds that the new man can treat her better. That may be true, but the new fellow loses his claim if he falls short.
2. More than that, morality and rights are prior to law. That is to say, we are born with rights. Morality is how we protect each other’s rights while we live together. Law is a tertiary system that defends and depends upon the first two.
Governments exist to protect the rights of people living within their jurisdictions and to encourage through cooperative effort the growth in areas such as culture, technology, and so forth. Government is justified when it uses its power to the furtherance of those ends, and its legal system provides the detailed explanation of how it may operate.
Perhaps the Founders wrote the Second Amendment with these ideas in mind. But I prefer to avoid the intentional fallacy and take the text as it’s written. Beyond that, we must keep nested priorities in order and recognize that we do not justify the concept of insurrection in law but in higher sources.
Understand that this is not advocating treason or rebellion. It is instead a reminder to all of us, both citizen and government agent, that we must work within the system, so long as that system is serving its purpose. As long as we all remember that requirement, there should never be the need for anything else.