- The Second Amendment as Demanding Subject:Figuring the Marginalized Subject in Demands for an Unbridled Second Amendment
Second Amendment, guns, Constitution, rights, freedom, victimization, demand
In American politics, we often equate rights, particularly constitutional rights, with freedom. It is as if we can discern how “free” we are by how well our constitutional rights are preserved. Political theorist Linda Zerilli cautions against such thinking:
When rights become institutionalized, we tend to forget their origin in a radical, ungrounded claim to freedom, to non-domination and to equal participation in public affairs. We tend to become invested in securing them as such, rather than in maintaining our investment in the sometimes less stable practices that created them in the first place.1
For Zerilli, there is a difference between rights as stable, institutionalized, static things and real, radical, ungrounded “freedom.” The institutionalized right is less an experience of freedom and more a relic of erstwhile political freedom. We can also think of this as the difference between rights as ends and rights as means. When politics is oriented toward preserving rights as such, the rights are functioning as an end. It is for the sake of the right that [End Page 737] the political movement exists. On the contrary, what Zerilli calls a politics of freedom occurs when the rights are one means among many for participating in public affairs and having the audacity to shape and define the world. As Zerilli says, rights have a “tendency to deteriorate into dead legal artifacts… when they lose their connection to practices of freedom.”2 Put another way, we do not find freedom fossilized and buried within documents; we find freedom in inventing the world anew. Politics as the exercise of freedom is radical and unbounded.
Politics oriented toward “freedom” as the preservation of rights, however, is a staid and constrained process. And this is precisely how “freedom” functions in many American political conversations. Constitutional rights become the “ends” of political action rather than a means for achieving other political goals. The rights become a political purpose in themselves. Perhaps paradoxically, all the attention paid to the right by centering a political movement on it actually divests the right of its revolutionary and radical power and serves to further ossify this “dead legal artifact.” This is because the claim to a right presupposes that it’s possible to abridge, disrespect, or flout that right. The narrative of rights says that if you don’t protect them, they will cease to exist. Therefore, a politics grounded in rights protection requires a constant tension; if it is a settled matter that the right is protected and that all are free to exercise that right, the political movement around it collapses. In this sense, a politics oriented toward the preservation of a right requires the perpetuation of that tension rather than the achievement of a goal or purpose. The movement exists for the right and not for what might be achieved through the exercise of it. A politics of “rights as ends” seems, then, to have less to do with forging a new political and social future and more to do with the political practice or movement itself.
I argue that those who engage in the politics of rights as ends do so primarily because of the identity work the practice accomplishes for them. Christian Lundberg would call this type of politics “demand” politics in that it is a politics founded on making demands of the institutional “other.”3 In so doing, Lundberg says, this practice helps to figure, to bring into signification, the “demanding subject” in opposition to that “other” and, therefore, performs important identity work for the subject.
To try to better understand this phenomenon, I use Lundberg’s framework to look at discourses surrounding the Second Amendment. While [End Page 738] there are other rights discourses circulating in and through American politics, the Second Amendment is an interesting example because it seems that the more secure the right in question becomes, the more vocal those advocating for its preservation become. My purpose in looking at the Second Amendment is not to critique the political position of those advocating...