As incredible as it sounds, there’s an argument going on right now between two Republican senators (and, potentially, two Republican candidates for the presidency) over whether the American citizenry should be ready to fight a war against the federal government. The two senators in question are Ted Cruz and Lindsey Graham, and they can’t seem to agree whether the Second Amendment serves as bulwark against government “tyranny.”
It all started with a fundraising email Cruz sent making the case that “The 2nd Amendment to the Constitution isn't for just protecting hunting rights, and it's not only to safeguard your right to target practice. It is a Constitutional right to protect your children, your family, your home, our lives, and to serve as the ultimate check against governmental tyranny -- for the protection of liberty.” TPM’s Sahil Kapur asked Graham what he thought of his Texan colleague's view of the Second Amendment, and the South Carolina senator was not impressed. He even invoked the Civil War, which should make Cruz’s people plenty upset. “Well, we tried that once in South Carolina,” Graham said. “I wouldn't go down that road again.”
This view of gun rights that casts personal firearm ownership as a check on the abuses of government doesn’t make a great deal of practical sense, and it betrays a lack of faith in our democratic institutions. But it’s become increasingly popular among high-level Republican officials who quite literally scare up votes by telling voters they’re right to keep their Glocks cocked just in case the feds come for them. Iowa’s new Republican senator Joni Ernst famously remarked that she supports the right to carry firearms to defend against “the government, should they decide that my rights are no longer important.”
The obvious question raised by statements like those from Cruz and Ernst is: when does the shooting start? What is the minimum threshold for government “tyranny” that justifies an armed response from the citizenry? In 2014, Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy was ready to start a shooting war with the feds to defend his illegal grazing practices, and he garnered the support of top-level Republican officials (they only abandoned him after he started wondering aloud whether black people would be better off as slaves).
It’s an important question because Republicans and conservatives – Ted Cruz included – tend to throw around terms like “tyranny” sort of haphazardly when criticizing policies and politicians they disagree with.
In May 2013, Cruz spoke at a press conference arranged by then-Rep. Michele Bachmann (remember her?) to vent rage at the IRS over its targeting of Tea Party-aligned non-profit groups. Cruz quoted Thomas Jefferson to suggest that the IRS scandal (along with Benghazi and Obamacare and other stuff) was a harbinger of “tyranny” from the federal government:
Last January, Cruz said Barack Obama was running the country like a dictator because of his executive orders on immigration and the administration’s delay of the Affordable Care Act’s employer mandate. “There are countries on this globe where that is how the law works,” Cruz said. “You look at corrupt countries where the rule of law is meaningless, where dictators are in power and they have things they call law. But what does law mean?”
Later that same month he wrote a Wall Street Journal Op-Ed suggesting that Obama’s “lawlessness” was a threat to personal liberty:
That would be wrong—and it is the Obama precedent that is opening the door for future lawlessness. As Montesquieu knew, an imperial presidency threatens the liberty of every citizen. Because when a president can pick and choose which laws to follow and which to ignore, he is no longer a president.
I don’t doubt that Cruz would argue strongly against an armed response to Obama’s immigration orders and tweaks to Obamacare. But at the same time, he’s the one bringing up government “tyranny” and “lawlessness,” and he’s the one bringing up the need to arm oneself in order to preserve one’s liberty. So he should be the one to explain where those two concepts intersect, and when an armed citizen would be justified in committing violence against the government.