The Huffington Post reported yesterday that Joni Ernst, the Republican candidate for Senate in Iowa, is prepared to shoot it out with the federal government, if necessary. Speaking at a National Rifle Association event in 2012, Ernst said that she carries a gun around to protect herself from government intrusion upon her rights. “I do believe in the right to carry,” Ernst said, “and I believe in the right to defend myself and my family -- whether it’s from an intruder, or whether it’s from the government, should they decide that my rights are no longer important.”
Ernst’s campaign has, to date, worked very hard to keep hidden her extremist past and penchant for conspiracy theories, but her stated willingness to get into a gunfight with the federal government isn’t really a “revelation” of her real views. Ernst wrote an August 2013 Op-Ed for the Des Moines Register in which she argued that the Second Amendment “is the steel foundation upon which our freedom is built and the backbone of our God-given individual and constitutional right to protect ourselves and our families from those who would do us harm, be they an intruder or a tyrannical government.” So it is an extremist position, but one that she hasn’t taken any pains to conceal.
For conservatives, however, Ernst’s remarks were no big deal and only the sort of thing that pansy liberals get upset about. National Review’s Charles C. W. Cooke wrote that all Ernst was doing was “confirming back in 2012 that she isn’t a slave.” Also, Cooke argued, it’s perfectly reasonable for an average American to be concerned that the U.S. government will lapse into tyrannical excess:
The notion that the state could potentially turn on its citizens is not a right-wing fever dream, nor was it a fear reserved by circumstances to the Founder’s time. If we learned one thing from the twentieth century it was that the state can be a force for extreme ill and that empowered citizens are necessary to forestall and, in extreme circumstances, to combat it. Is Joni Ernst supposed to pretend otherwise because it might upset the delicate flowers who would rather not think about such things?
“I have a gun to defend myself” isn’t a controversial position. “I have a gun to defend myself from government tyranny,” is a whole different kettle of fish. Even among supporters of gun rights, the notion that a personal firearm served as a check on government excess was, until recently, a fringe belief. It was confined largely to the militia movements and low-rent insurrectionists like Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who was ready to go to war with the feds in defense of his lawless cattle grazing. Now it’s something you’ll hear from high-profile conservatives and even Republican members of Congress.
Of course, stating your intention to use physical violence to defend against government tyranny raises an obvious question: What, exactly, constitutes “tyranny”? The interminable arguments over healthcare reform, immigration, executive orders, domestic surveillance and just about everything President Obama has done have shown that one man’s “tyranny” is another man’s sensible policy. References to the Affordable Care Act as “tyranny” are commonplace on the right. Talk radio hosts refer to the Supreme Court’s refusal to deny marriage rights to same-sex couples as “tyranny.” The word has been thrown around so carelessly by conservatives that it’s come to mean “something I disagree with.”
So the question for Joni Ernst is: At what point do you pull out that “beautiful little Smith & Wesson nine millimeter” and point it at a representative of the federal government? What action by the government would be sufficiently threatening to her rights that it would justify, in her mind, the use of violence? She’s already indicated that she would support legislation to jail bureaucrats who do nothing more than implement federal healthcare policy in her state, so it seems like her personal threshold for “you’re violating my rights” is pretty low.
And as Paul Waldman points out, comments like Ernst’s reflect a lack of faith in the democratic process and doubts about the legitimacy of the government. “In the American system, we don’t say that if the government enacts policies we don’t like, we’ll start killing people. It’s not clear that Ernst meant this, but it’s fair to ask her to explain what she did mean.”
Saying you’re prepared to use force to defend yourself against the government isn’t merely a declaration of personal freedom, as conservatives would have you believe. Ernst made a provocative statement about how she views the relationship between the federal government and the American people. She’s entitled to her belief that true freedom from government “tyranny” requires carrying a firearm at all times, but holding that belief requires her to explain at what point she’d start shooting.