What would it take for you to stop being an American? It’s a question a lot of us are turning over in our heads right now, in one form or another. Donald Trump is one big reason. When people say they’d consider moving to Canada if Trump gets elected president, what most of them mean (I think) is they wouldn’t want to live in a country where immigrants or Muslims don’t have the same basic rights as other Americans, or, more generally, where ignorance and hatred and bigotry are not just condoned but celebrated and rewarded.
I’ve been thinking about that question more in light of our country’s toxic relationship with guns. Every time there’s another mass shooting, I wonder: Who are the people who think this is an OK state of affairs, an acceptable tradeoff between an individual’s rights and those of his neighbors? What’s the imaginary scenario they find scarier than the reality of kindergarten classrooms and movie theaters and nightclubs full of bodies, of tens of thousands of annual gun deaths?
Many of them will tell you despotism is what they fear. Americans need the threat of rebellion for the same reason they did in 1776, as a safeguard against government tyranny. It’s only because we’re so well armed that what happened in Germany and Russia and Cuba hasn’t happened here since we kicked the British out.
Last night, after a sniper at a Black Lives Matter protest in Dallas shot and killed five police officers, I thought about this rationale. Murdering police officers was an evil crime, almost all of us would agree, but wasn’t it also an action in keeping with the core ideology of the gun-rights movement? It seems obvious for police to keep killing black people, one after another, without facing legal consequences is a violation of individual rights at least as serious as the Stamp Act or the Quartering Act. How would people who idealize the notion of armed resistance to abusive government react to seeing their ideal put into practice? I tweeted:
Predictably, of the many responses I received from pro-gun-rights people, a large fraction invoked the Bill of Rights, the American Revolution and the wisdom of the Founding Fathers. Many called me some variant of “fuckwit.” Some also introduced me to a new phrase I hadn’t heard before: “Molon labe.” I had to look it up. Drawn from ancient Greek history, it’s an adopted Second Amendment rallying cry that means, basically, “Come and take them.” (Ie. from our cold, dead hands, pace Charlton Heston.) The implication being, you won’t succeed, because we will shoot you first.
It’s this molon labe strain of gun-rights extremism I’ve always found it hardest to understand or empathize with. The Second Amendment is, after all, an amendment. It was appended to the Constitution by those same Founding Fathers and ratified in the same manner, and, like the rest of the Constitution, it can be further amended in a manner prescribed by those same rules, drafted by those same Framers. Moreover, its applicability to law is subject to interpretation by a Supreme Court empowered by that same Constitution, written, yes, by those same Founding Fathers. If you think the Framers were eternal geniuses who foresaw every historical eventuality, then don’t you have to accept the results of the process they designed?
The invocation of molon labe often comes amid a bunch of blather about the Bill of Rights and Adams and Jefferson, but trotting it out negates all that stuff. What it says, in effect is: I’m a fan of the Second Amendment, but only as a matter of expediency. My right to defend myself derives from my ability to do so, not from a piece of paper. If push ever came to shove and the Constitution were amended or interpreted to ban the types of guns I own, I would shoot the police officers/federal marshals/soldiers who tried to take them from me.
In other words, the loss of gun rights is what it would take for them to stop being American.
That there would be some breaking point is perfectly comprehensible to me. America’s not a tribe; it’s a concept, a collection of ideals. If we ceased to have freedom of the press or freedom of religion, or if we moved far enough backward on gay rights or racial equality, at some point I would have to renounce my American citizenship, too. But to locate the heart of the American idea in gun ownership above all else, to see it as an issue where killing is better than compromise — I just can’t understand it. After last night, I understand it less than ever.