In 1861, at Fort Sumter, Americans took up arms against their countrymen in order to settle a dispute. This was not the first time. (More)

Prior to that there were several armed insurrections, including the Whiskey Rebellion. And prior to that there was the American Revolution, another instance where taking up arms against one’s countrymen was considered acceptable.

Indeed, America has a long sordid history with violence and threats as a means to a political end, including dueling, assassinations, and rebellions. Fast forward to today, and we see contemporary examples, such as the assassination attempt on Rep. Gabby Giffords, the man who crashed his airplane into the IRS office in Austin, Texas, the rancher Cliven Bundy and his armed insurrection over public land grazing fees, a Wisconsin man who said he had a constitutional duty to kill President Obama , and U.S. Senate candidate Sharron Angle promoting “Second Amendment remedies.”

So what motivates this tendency among many in our country to seek a “Second Amendment remedy” whenever they dislike a political situation?

Contemporary Extremism

It is instructive to look at a category of contemporary extremists for clues as to the causes of these motivations. Many of the ideas espoused by these extremists are the same, or derived from earlier arguments, that can likely be traced in one form or another to before the Revolutionary War. These extremists, according to the Anti-Defemation League:

call themselves, variously, constitutionalists, freemen, preamble citizens, common law citizens and non-foreign/non-resident aliens (Nichols used several of these), but most commonly refer to themselves as “sovereign citizens.”

“Sovereign Citizens” enshrine the ideology that violence is necessarily a right of the people, to ensure their freedom from tyranny. The philosophy of Sovereign Citizen is rooted firmly in libertarian thinking, and uses many of same first principles and language. The Anti-Defamation League describe the Sovereign Citizens as:

A movement [that] is a loosely organized collection of groups and individuals who have adopted a right-wing anarchist ideology originating in the theories of a group called the Posse Comitatus in the 1970s. Its adherents believe that virtually all existing government in the United States is illegitimate and they seek to “restore” an idealized, minimalist government that never actually existed. To this end, sovereign citizens wage war against the government and other forms of authority using “paper terrorism” harassment and intimidation tactics, and occasionally resorting to violence.

According to the FBI, ‘Sovereign Citizens‘:

  • Commit murder and physical assault;
  • Threaten judges, law enforcement professionals, and government personnel;
  • Impersonate police officers and diplomats;
  • Use fake currency, passports, license plates, and driver’s licenses; and
  • Engineer various white-collar scams, including mortgage fraud and so-called “redemption” schemes.

Sovereign Citizens include the likes of Terry Nichols and Timothy McVeigh. Some recently engaged in anti-government violence.

Sovereign Citizens often root their ideology in white supremacist thought

Take for example United States vs. Greenstreet:

Greenstreet argues that he is of “Freeman Character” and “of the White Preamble Citizenship and not one of the 14th Amendment legislated enfranchised De Facto colored races.” He further claims that he is a “white Preamble natural sovereign Common Law De Jure Citizen of the Republic/State of Texas.” As a result, he concludes that he is a sovereign, not subject to the jurisdiction of this Court. Greenstreet’s argument is entirely frivolous. Except for documents allegedly issued from the common law court Greenstreet claims is superior to this Court, no support for his position exists.

The Southern Poverty Law Center says:

The movement is rooted in racism and anti-Semitism, though most sovereigns, many of whom are African American, are unaware of their beliefs’ origins. In the early 1980s, the sovereign citizens movement mostly attracted white supremacists and anti-Semites, mainly because sovereign theories originated in groups that saw Jews as working behind the scenes to manipulate financial institutions and control the government. Most early sovereigns, and some of those who are still on the scene, believed that being white was a prerequisite to becoming a sovereign citizen. They argued that the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which guaranteed citizenship to African Americans and everyone else born on U.S. soil, also made black Americans permanently subject to federal and state governments, unlike themselves.

According to Melissa Shearer and Christina Koenig of the Texas Criminal Defense Lawyers Association:

What connects all people lured into the movement is a common belief that the “system” has targeted them in some way.


Many anti-government extremists see themselves as freedom fighters who are resisting tyranny. These ‘patriots’ believe that the government is an out of control, corrupt entity, and a threat to personal liberty and see it as their duty to take on the government for everyone’s liberty.

The SPLC reports a:

powerful resurgence of the anti-government ‘patriot’ movement, which in the 1990s led to a string of domestic terrorist plots, including the Oklahoma City bombing. The number of patriot groups, including armed militias, skyrocketed following the election of President Obama in 2008 – rising 813 percent, from 149 groups in 2008 to an all-time high of 1,360 in 2012. The number fell to 874 in 2014.

This growth in extremism has been aided by mainstream media figures and politicians who have used their platforms to legitimize false propaganda about immigrants and other minorities and spread the kind of paranoid conspiracy theories on which militia groups thrive.

Consider these ‘patriots’:

A Flawed Argument

Some have tried to intellectually justify this gun toting, kill Americans political ideology. The National Review‘s Kevin Williamson argues:

The purpose of having citizens armed with paramilitary weapons is to allow them to engage in paramilitary actions.
There is no legitimate exception to the Second Amendment for military-style weapons, because military-style weapons are precisely what the Second Amendment guarantees our right to keep and bear. The purpose of the Second Amendment is to secure our ability to oppose enemies foreign and domestic, a guarantee against disorder and tyranny.

Williamson’s National Review colleague Charles Cooke breathlessly argues that the absence of guns enables groups to be marginalized and oppressed. Citing the Catholics of England, African American slaves, and Native Americans as groups that were oppressed, Cooke says, that their oppression began and or was maintained by denial of access to guns:

America’s history is worse. In the 17th century, the Massachusetts and Plymouth colonies prohibited the sale of guns to Indians, while the “Black Codes” of 18th-century Louisiana required free French colonists not only to disarm but to beat “any black carrying any potential weapon.” Blacks have had it especially tough. Many post-Revolutionary state constitutions reserved the right to bear arms to “freemen,” which, naturally, meant whites. After the Civil War, the Democratic party’s own “Black Codes,” which were designed to prohibit freed slaves from owning guns in the South, had the same execrable purpose. The first draft of the 1871 Ku Klux Klan Act rendered it a federal crime to “deprive any citizen of the United States of any arms or weapons he may have in his house or possession for the defense of his person, family, or property.”

As recently as 1968, gun-control measures were a veiled attempt to disarm black people. “The Gun Control Act of 1968 was passed not to control guns,” the anti-gun Robert Sherrill contends, “but to control blacks, and inasmuch as a majority of Congress did not want to do the former but were ashamed to show that their goal was the latter, the result was that they did neither.” In debates over gun-control measures, tyranny is usually posited as potential, not actual. But what possible resonance could smug assurances that “it couldn’t happen here” have had for these excluded men? It did happen here.

What a fantastically compelling argument: the slaves of the United States could have risen up against the government and liberated themselves from bondage if only they had guns. The institutions of slavery, or of Jim Crow enforced by law and charter could have been swept aside by gun toting African American men.

He would have them aim their guns at the wrong thing

Like everyone else in that crowd, Cooke misses the target. It was not the government of the United States that created slavery, or said that African Americans were three-fifths a man, it was wealthy white men. It was not the government of the United States that fought to preserve slavery, rather, it was wealthy white men. It was wealthy white men who wrote articles of secession that said that slavery was their right. Fearing that the Union would not much longer preserve their power and privilege, wealthy white southerners and their followers chose to cast aside that government and create one for themselves that would preserve their power and tyranny over African Americans.

And they used guns to do it.

Americans felt is was appropriate to take up arms against their countrymen, to kill their countrymen, to settle a political dispute. It was a war that cost the lives of an estimated 750,000 Americans. The Confederate battle flag is a symbol of the ideology that bloodshed in a Republic is an acceptable means of conflict resolution.

Gun toting revisionists persist in the straw man argument that the government is out to get you, that only by force of arms, and a willingness to kill people, can you preserve your personal liberty. By denying others their right to life, which comes before the right to liberty in the Declaration of Independence, they can stay free. They kill police officers, or assassinate leaders, or start wars of secession or write flowery screeds in the National Review all in the name of killing people to advance their cause. Whatever their cause is.

And they all talk about liberty, and call themselves patriots, while flying the Gadsden Flag or the Confederate Flag, and declaring “I’ll kill you to have my way.”

It is not the government that creates tyranny, it is the people who control it. And as the South showed during the Civil War, it is not peace loving people that start shooting when tyranny is threatened. Rather, it is the tyrants themselves.



You can read about successful nonviolent protests and uprisings in a Foreign Affairs article in which and talk about the superiority of non-violent movements from a number of standpoints.  They write in part:

Civil resistance does not succeed because it melts the hearts of dictators and secret police. It succeeds because it is more likely than armed struggle to attract a larger and more diverse base of participants and impose unsustainable costs on a regime. No single civil resistance campaign is the same, but the ones that work all have three things in common: they enjoy mass participation, they produce regime defections, and they employ flexible tactics. Historically, the larger and more diverse the campaign, the more likely it was to succeed. Large campaigns have a greater chance of seriously disrupting the status quo, raising the costs of government repression, and provoking defections among a regime’s pillars of support. When large numbers of people engage in acts of civil disobedience and disruption, shifting between concentrated methods such as protests and dispersed methods such as consumer boycotts and strikes, even the most brutal opponent has difficulty cracking down and sustaining the repression indefinitely.