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Guns, Democracy, and the Insurrectionist Idea

Joshua Horwitz and Casey Anderson

Publication Year: 2009

The NRA steadfastly maintains that the 30,000 gun-related deaths and 300,000 assaults with firearms in the United States every year are a small price to pay to guarantee freedom. As former NRA President Charlton Heston put it, "freedom isn't free." And when gun enthusiasts talk about Constitutional liberties guaranteed by the Second Amendment, they are referring to freedom in a general sense, but they also have something more specific in mind---freedom from government oppression. They argue that the only way to keep federal authority in check is to arm individual citizens who can, if necessary, defend themselves from an aggressive government. In the past decade, this view of the proper relationship between government and individual rights and the insistence on a role for private violence in a democracy has been co-opted by the conservative movement. As a result, it has spread beyond extreme "militia" groups to influence state and national policy. In Guns, Democracy, and the Insurrectionist Idea, Josh Horwitz and Casey Anderson reveal that the proponents of this view base their argument on a deliberate misreading of history. The Insurrectionist myth has been forged by twisting the facts of the American Revolution and the founding of the United States, the denial of civil rights to African-Americans after the Civil War, and the rise of the Third Reich under Adolf Hitler. Here, Horwitz and Anderson set the record straight. Then, challenging the proposition that more guns equal more freedom, they expose Insurrectionism---not government oppression---as the true threat to freedom in the U.S. today. Joshua Horwitz received a law degree from George Washington University and is currently a visiting scholar at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. He is Executive Director of the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence and the Educational Fund to Stop Gun Violence. He has spent nearly two decades working on gun violence prevention issues. He lives in Arlington, Virginia. Casey Anderson holds a law degree from Georgetown University and is currently a lawyer in private practice in Washington, D.C. He has served in senior staff positions with the U.S. Congress, the Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, and Americans for Gun Safety. He lives in Arlington, Virginia.

Published by: University of Michigan Press


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pp. ix-x

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pp. 1-10

The National Rifle Association (NRA) sells everything from its political agenda to its merchandise with a simple equation: more guns equals more freedom. The NRA steadfastly maintains that thirty thousand gun-related deaths and three hundred thousand assaults with firearms in the United States every year are a small price to pay to guarantee freedom. As former NRA president Charlton Heston put it, “Freedom isn’t free.”

Part 1. The Insurrectionists

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Chapter 1. What Is the Insurrectionist Idea?

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pp. 13-28

Insurrectionist is not a synonym for gun owner. Most gun owners do not belong to organizations that support—or whose leaders support—Insurrectionism. The 4.3 million members claimed by the National Rifle Association (NRA)1 make it one of the nation’s largest membership organizations, but the United States is home to an estimated 80 million gun owners. Even within the NRA, many members perceive it as a service provider—that is, they sign up to take advantage of discounted insurance or hunting gear and ignore its political views.

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Chapter 2. What Is the Insurrectionist Agenda?

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pp. 29-34

Many on the left assume that support for an expansive view of gun rights is essentially just a manifestation of a muscular strand of libertarianism. Anyone who has studied the propaganda churned out by the leading gun rights groups, however, quickly comes to understand that gun rights advocacy has been harnessed to an ideological perspective that is better described as right-wing populism, which includes deep-seated resentment of the power and values of elites, xenophobia, and distrust of powerful institutions such as large corporations as well as activist government.

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Chapter 3. Who Are the Insurrectionists?

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pp. 35-75

Through the National Rifle Association (NRA) and its allied gun rights groups, the Insurrectionists have created an effective communications infrastructure that incorporates right-wing leaders, politicians at the highest levels of government, the bottom-feeders of the militia movement, and hate groups as well as a large grassroots network that can push Insurrectionist propaganda to millions of gun owners at a moment’s notice. To be sure, most NRA members are not Insurrectionists, but the leaders of the NRA and allied groups have committed the Insurrectionist dogma to the service of the “conservative movement” and the Republican Party.

Part 2. History According to the Insurrectionists

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Chapter 4. The Founding

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pp. 79-117

Insurrectionist propagandists often try to tie their theoretical account of the relationship between guns and government to historical episodes in which, they claim, egregious violations of human rights or even mass murder could have been avoided if only the victims had been armed. With regard to the founding of the United States, they claim that our forefathers wisely chose to guarantee a right of insurrection as a check on the excesses of centralized power, with the result that our system has kept the inevitably oppressive tendencies of government under control. In this chapter, we argue in favor of a competing interpretation of the period surrounding the framing of the U.S. Constitution and point out why the Insurrectionist account of the relationship between guns and democratic government was as untenable at the time the Constitution was adopted as it is today.

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Chapter 5. The Civil War and Reconstruction

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pp. 118-136

Revisionist claims about the constitutional status of political violence emerged well before the gun rights movement adopted the Insurrectionist idea as a core rationale for opposition to the regulation of firearms. In fact, by the time the attack on Fort Sumter marked the beginning of the Civil War, advocates of secession, the forefathers of the modern Insurrectionists, had worked out elaborate theoretical justifications for their decision to take up arms against the United States. The states had never surrendered their sovereignty to the central government, the argument went, and therefore were free to dissolve the compact that bound them to the United States when they decided the Union no longer served their interests or represented their values.

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Chapter 6. The Rise of the Third Reich

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pp. 137-156

“How can anyone support gun control after what Hitler did to the Jews?” What began several years ago as a throwaway line used by gun rights activists to suggest that perhaps European Jews could have organized themselves to resist the Nazis if they had been better armed has become a fully elaborated revisionist theory of the history of the Holocaust. One gun rights group, Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, is dedicated specifically to promoting the idea that Jews have the most to lose if private ownership of firearms is regulated or restricted because persecuted minorities cannot count on the government to protect them.

Part 3. Insurrectionism, Democracy, and Freedom

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Chapter 7. The Meaning of Freedom

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pp. 159-162

The relationship between gun rights and democracy is more complicated than the Insurrectionist account would suggest. Any consideration of the political theory of gun rights, moreover, requires at least a cursory review of some of the broader issues in political theory in general, because democracy and freedom mean different things to different people at different times. We submit that no system can claim to be democratic unless it protects, among other things, individual rights, pluralism, and the right to vote in elections decided by majority rule.

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Chapter 8. One Gun, One Vote?

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pp. 163-170

As we have said, the essence of any democratic system is the idea that each person is an equal citizen. This equality extends to, among other things, political and civil rights. This does not necessarily mean that equality in the distribution of wealth or condition is required for a successful democracy—although some scholars have argued that drastic economic inequality makes democracy difficult or impossible to sustain— but democracy requires, at a minimum, that all citizens enjoy the same rights.

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Chapter 9. Democracy and the Monopoly on Force

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pp. 171-184

Against the backdrop of the decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, the only Second Amendment case to reach the Supreme Court in seventy years, the presidential candidates in the 2008 election cycle competed against each other to burnish their gun rights bona fides. On the Republican side, a number of candidates explicitly endorsed the concept of an individual right to insurrection and made it clear that if they were to become president, they would take us back to a simpler and better time when the “people” held the federal government in check through force of arms (see chapter 1).

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Chapter 10. Insurrectionism and Individual Rights

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pp. 185-214

For both moral and practical reasons, no democratic government can or should operate under principles of purely majoritarian institutions. Democracies must protect the civil rights of individuals and minority groups in addition to the political rights of all citizens to express their will in elections decided by majority rule. Political theorists, legal scholars, and jurists have long recognized that the majority, acting through the government, cannot tread in certain areas.

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Chapter 11. Effective Democratic Institutions

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pp. 215-220

Both political and civil rights are integral to a well-functioning democracy. Some of these rights protect individuals from state action. The First Amendment, for example, protects people’s ability to post partisan political slogans on their balconies, while other rights protect individuals by requiring state action, such as the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. In either case, a state cannot survive long in democratic form if it lacks the internal strength to provide avenues of redress in the former case or law enforcement support in the latter.

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pp. 221-227

Just a few years ago, the prospect that the Insurrectionist idea might win the respect or even the endorsement of the highest court in the United States seemed remote. When we began work on this book, we wanted to draw attention to the growing currency of Insurrectionist ideology in politics and popular conceptions of the role of guns in American society, but we did not expect it to be taken seriously as a theory of constitutional interpretation outside of a small circle of right-wing academics and propagandists. The decision in District of Columbia v. Heller, however, along with the D.C. Circuit opinion on which it built, demonstrates how successfully the Insurrectionist rationale for gun ownership has penetrated the mainstream of legal discourse.


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pp. 229-250


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pp. 251-259


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pp. 261-274

E-ISBN-13: 9780472021994
E-ISBN-10: 0472021990
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472033706
Print-ISBN-10: 0472033700

Page Count: 296
Publication Year: 2009

OCLC Number: 676711453
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Subject Headings

  • Civil rights -- United States.
  • Gun control -- United States.
  • Firearms -- Law and legislation -- United States.
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