There is ample blame to go around for the MAGA insurgency that has so far resulted in eight deaths and left the rest of us on a knife’s edge. A number of those charged for storming the Capitol have made it clear that they believed they were heeding on Donald Trump’s call to action. Every Republican who acted as if Trump’s claims of a stolen election had more validity than when he accused Ted Cruz of cheating his way to a victory in the Iowa Republican caucus in 2016 or said the Emmy Awards were rigged after “The Amazing Race” edged out “The Apprentice” is culpable to a degree.
But we need to look deeper to understand why hundreds of people who saw themselves as law-abiding “patriots” not only ran wild through the seat of American government but felt sufficiently entitled to do so that they later shared their criminal exploits on social media. Whiteness alone doesn’t explain it.
The United States is unique among mature democracies for having a political culture in which the idea that ordinary citizens have a right and a duty to respond to what they perceive to be government overreach with violence. That belief has been called the “insurgency theory” of the 2nd Amendment, and it has been heavily promoted by the gun manufacturers’ lobby—both the NRA and even more reactionary groups like Gun Owners of America—for decades.
The Framers of the Constitution saw the separation of powers as the primary bulwark against tyranny. It was the co-equal branches of government protecting their own turf that would prevent the executive from accruing too much power and coming to resemble a monarch.
They were fearful of armed rabble usurping legitimate government, so they guaranteed the right to bear arms in conjunction with a well-organized militia. They did see the 2nd Amendment as a safeguard against tyranny, but not in the way today’s reactionaries would have you believe.
As Charles Dunlap Jr., a colonel in the US Air Force, wrote in the Tennessee Law Review during the debate over the now defunct Assault Weapons Ban, the right to bear arms was a key a compromise between Federalists, who favored a strong central government with a standing army, and Anti-Federalists, who “had a deep distrust of professional militaries.”
Their English heritage…taught them that standing armies could be tools of a tyrannical monarch or a rogue military commander.
The linchpin of the scheme to counterbalance the potentially dangerous standing army was an armed citizenry, a force [Anti-Federalists] considered superior to any body of regular troops that could be raised in the United States.… Among the solutions the Framers devised to ensure that state-based militias remained effective and free from federal encroachment was the Second Amendment.
But the 18th century notion that citizen militias who could be called up to respond to threats were a safer bet to preserve democracy than big standing armies doesn’t sell guns and makes for a poor front in the culture wars. So beginning in the 1970s, the NRA and other gun rights absolutists began to push the once-outlandish idea that the Constitution contained an individual right to bear arms.
As Dahlia Lithwick wrote some 40 years later, when a conservative majority on the Supreme Court abandoned any pretense of following the original meaning of the Constitution and adopted that view, “the current interpretation of the Second Amendment… is a hoax.”
[It resulted from] a decades-long effort by exceptionally well-organized, well-funded interest groups that included the National Rifle Association—all of whom “embarked on an extraordinary campaign to convince the public, and eventually the courts, to understand the Second Amendment in their preferred way” It’s rather miraculous, if you stop to think about it: In a few short decades the NRA’s view of the Second Amendment became the law of the land. By 2008, writing the majority opinion for the Supreme Court in District of Columbia et al. v. Heller, Antonin Scalia enshrined this view for first time that: “The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.”
Modern states now have professional standing armies, but the theory that ordinary people need access to military-style weapons to stave off tyranny persists among American gun-rights absolutists. This belief inspires the militia movement, and the Oath Keepers—former soldiers and law-enforcement officers who vow to resist laws they consider to be unconstitutional, several of whom have been charged with conspiracy in the Capitol attack. It formed the basis of the armed standoffs with federal law enforcement by the Bundy family and their supporters at their Nevada ranch in 2014, and again in Oregon in 2016. It animates the dimwitted bravado of people like Rep. Lauren Boebert, who may have brought firearms onto the House floor, and Marjorie Taylor Greene, who praised the violent insurrectionists the day after they stormed the Capitol.
And it played more than a passing role in convincing several thousand people that their belief in crackpot conspiracy theories about the 2020 election justified them rising up against Congress and the Capitol Police standing between them and their democratically elected quarry. Once you believe that you have an individual right to bear arms to stave off tyrannical government, it only goes to follow that you are also empowered to judge whether the government has slipped into tyranny. So even if dozens of courts reject Trump’s claims of fraud, and Republican election officials insist that everything was done by the book and members of Trump’s own national security team assure the public that the election was free and fair, if you believe some guy on YouTube who says Hugo Chavez rigged the voting machines, you’re justified in storming the Capitol to “stop the steal.”?