Arms, Rebellion and Autonomy

At The American Conservative, Samuel Goldman brings a skeptical eye to the current common place in gun discussion, that the bearing of arms and militias are there to secure the community against tyranny. The short answer: well meant, but ineffective.

What often goes missing is one other condition, that of civil rebellion itself.

Bearing arms in resistance can only be legitimate to the extent that it is just. Theologically, this is a tough nut; the standing rule is go with even unjust kings. The religious violence of the post Reformation era undercut such an easy answer. For those in the Reformed tradition, obedience is conditioned by obedience to God. Even here, there is a social element.  Calvin lays out the conditions in The Institutes  Book IV.xx.31: the just rebellion against the king is done by the righteous magistrate.

The Second Amendment discussions of arms as a deterrent to tyranny broadly omit the discussion of when it is just (treating it in Frontier fashion as self-evident), and even less who then becomes the summoning authority.  To the degree that individual arms bearing is understood as a formal protection against the central State, it remains one bounded by collective decision making, something I think can be seen in the notion of “militia” itself.

(What I find that further confuses  this discussion is the role of individual arms bearing not as a protection against political tyranny, but as an assertion of individual autonomy against cultural “tyrannies.” In this, the language of resistance to a tyrannical state, a language often conveyed with great emotional vehemence, is more a kind of political theatre for what is finally a more interior sensibility. As a lover of theatre, I don’t doubt the legitimacy of the gun as a sign of autonomy.)


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