According to gun control advocates, it is pointless for Americans to own rifles like the AR-15, since owners could never realistically defeat the U.S. military with personal small arms — though they do not often know that word and instead refer to such weapons as toys. What follows is endless quibbling over definitions and arguments over the history of asymmetrical warfare, along with suspicions that people who have semiautomatic rifles are secret insurrectionists.
But there is a foundational point to be considered here, namely the role of individual and popular agency in relation to the government and society as a whole. The inevitable end of the line of reasoning offered by gun control advocates is that government is beyond our reach, that its power is categorically above us.
This is not unique to guns. When tax season shows up or the traffic officer is lurking in the median, it feels like our reality. And given how inattentive our elected politicians are to the needs and progress of ordinary Americans, the observation, attributed to Mark Twain, among others, that if voting changed anything, it would be illegal sounds right.
The point about voting is important. In the discussions about the type of government we would have in the United States, one of the concerns was over a fear of the founders of democracy, a system that they understood to mean the rule of the mob — what today we would call direct democracy in its fullest expression. The Constitution attempts to split the difference by giving us the democratical body of Congress, the House of Representatives, and the aristocratic Senate in its original writing. The members of the House were to be directly elected by popular vote in districts, while senators were appointed by state legislatures. As the 2000 and 2016 presidential elections reminded us, we also have a system for choosing the leader of our nation as a whole that was intended to act as what we would today call a circuit breaker to save us from excessive influence of the irrational masses, as wildly optimistic as that seems today. And, of course, the vote originally meant the choice of such white men, generally property owners, as were allowed to participate.
We have moved away in fits and starts from this founding anxiety over the popular will to the point that in theory, if not always in practice, all of us can have a say in how our society is run. At each stage, I can imagine our advocates of gun control asking what would be the point of giving the vote to women or former slaves. After all, white men ran things at the time and continued to do so for the most part until, well, now. Why should we recognize the rights of citizenship among people who would not be able to change things? A similar argument could be made regarding labor unions. What could be the point of allowing workers to have a say in the conditions, wages, and other benefits of their jobs?
I hope that the clear answer in all of this is that securing that say — whether we are talking about votes, jobs, or defense, personal or collective — is exactly what distinguishes a citizen from a subject. Citizens have individual rights that are respected, even when the expression of those rights can result in changes, some of the fundamental, in the nature of their societies.
Could we overthrow the government through the use of personal weapons? That really is not the point. A society that respects individual rights makes overthrowing their political structures unnecessary, just as a company that respects the rights of workers avoids the need for strikes. A society that violates these or any rights is precisely the kind that we should be able to resist. It is also the type that we should avoid falling into by rejecting calls of gun control advocates.