The orthodox argument advanced by the National Rifle Association (NRA) senior leadership for the individual ownership of firearms unconnected with military service is that firearms in the hands of private citizens acts as a deterrent to some future tyranny by the Federal government. One would think, then, that Micah Xavier Johnson would by now have been recruited by the NRA as both poster child and martyr. After all, in the wake of the LA and MN shootings of helpless black men by the police – to say nothing of Ferguson and New York City and Baltimore and … -- Johnson’s actions were pristinely and irreproachably consistent with the NRA’s avowed advocacy of armed resistance to a tyrannical government bent on the subjugation of its citizens. Yet – at least, as far as I have been able to determine as of this writing (12 July) – the NRA, for all its rhetorical bluster about defending liberty by force of arms, has been curiously silent.
So one can only ask … “Why only the sound of crickets chirping?” …
Well … on second thought ... that’s not quite true. In fact, it isn’t even in the same ballpark as true. In the wake of the recent shootings, especially the Dallas atrocity, the NRA has indeed been, as is customary with the NRA, stridently vocal. Just stridently vocal for (what one would have thought the NRA would have considered) the wrong side. And to continue down the rabbit-hole of mirror-reversal, in the case of the fatal shooting of Philando Castile, the NRA’s defense of Mr. Castile’s right to own a gun has amounted to much more of a whimper than a bang – again, the antipodal opposite of what one would have expected from the NRA -- a circumstance which has allegedly turned out to be a source of division within the ranks of the NRA itself. So mea maxima culpa: I stand corrected.
Instead of coming down on the side of those who use their Second Amendment rights to resist the excessive use of lethal force by the police, as NRA rhetoric has led us to expect, the NRA has praised the use of such force by the police against the insurgents.
Given the NRA’s habitual bombast in defense of the Second Amendment and individual gun ownership as the trenches from which liberty would be defended against government tyranny, this is surprising … in fact, jaw-droppingly, drool-inducingly astonishing. Think of it this way: how surprised would you be if you got into your time machine, punched up “Concord, MA, April 19, 1775”, emerged, sat down by “rude bridge that arched the flood,” watched the unfolding battle – and saw hundreds of colonists on the sidelines cheering for the British army – and afterwards convening at a local pub to drink a toast to the gallantry of King George III’s boys in red? Similarly, the NRA praised the gallantry of the Dallas police in cornering and killing Micah Johnson, who was – at least one would have thought – employing his “right to … bear arms” in opposition to the government’s extermination of his brothers, an action concerning which the NRA still carries bruises from all its public chest-beating. Isn’t resisting lethal coercion on the part of the government exactly what Micah Johnson was supposed to do, according to NRA orthodoxy? Observing these rhetorical twistings and turnings and contortions on the part of the NRA, the most appropriate exclamation that leaps to mind is “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot?!”
I can only venture the theory that the NRA has thus far been reticent about endorsing the actions of Micah Xavier Johnson because the late Mr. Johnson took matters into his own hands and, bypassing the usual means of seeking and forging democratic consensus by soliciting others’ opinions and support, acted purely on his own, apparently without even the knowledge of his parents. So perhaps the nuance missing from the NRA’s advocacy of DIY armed insurrection is that the matter was not first referred to committee and debated there. (What committee? Aw c'mon ... don't be so picky!) In other words, the principle would seem to be that it’s quite OK to take up arms, Galahad-like, in chivalrous defense of Miss Liberty’s virginity, as long as we all vote on it first. So, since we as a Nation inherited the Second Amendment and its attendant "privileges and immunities" from the Framers who created the Constitution in the first place, and since those Framers formed an especially illustrious subset of the Founders, it would seem reasonable to ask how democratic and consensus-sensitive the original decision was to oppose that archetypal tyrannical government, the Crown of Great Britain and the agents of King George III. In other words, how democratic was that prototypical armed Insurrection against the archetypal Tyranny?
Answer: Even by the standards of the late 1700s ... not very.
Oh, sure, there were the "committees of correspondence," basically the shadow governments of the Colonies that were on the brink of revolution, anyway, and therefore determined to resist Royal power and chart their own course. (Thomas Jefferson's autobiography gives some fascinating insight into the working of colonial Virginia's own committee of correspondence.) And, yes, these committees, as the embryonic "governments in domestic exile" of the obstreperous colonies, did report to the Continental Congress. But membership on such committees was not determined democratically by any reasonable definition of that term, and, in any case, the Articles of Confederation had no power to bind any State to the decisions of all the other States, even by unanimous vote of Congress. Even at the level of the Continental Congress, consensus was hard to come by, never mind at the State level, as witness the tumultuous debates attending the various "olive branch" resolutions and beseechings approved by that Congress and dutifully transmitted to London for summary rejection by King and Parliament. Only after the Revolution had been won and the Constitution was placed before the States for ratification in 1787-89 did actual democracy break out as a positive contagion. So if an alleged lack of democratic consensus lies at the root of the NRA's reluctance to endorse Micah Johnson's act of insurrection, then such a lack should also render the original Revolution illegitimate. But based on the NRA's Pavlovian tendency to dislocate its shoulder waving the Flag, one is entitled to a certain skepticism about such a conclusion.
But don't give up hope! For the real issue is actually hidden in plain sight. The explanation of the ... shall we say ... ambivalence of the NRA toward Johnson's one-man rebellion and the consequent source of the NRA's enthusiasm for the police lies neither in any incipient affection for American democracy, or even for the police protecting the tenets of an ordered society. Instead, I think the answer lies, not in anything having to do with the Founding and the Framing, but in a subsequent historical event roughly 80 years later, in the run-up to the Civil War: John Brown's abortive but prophetic slave rebellion at the Federal armory of Harper's Ferry in 1859. This was not the first slave rebellion in American history, far from it: Nat Turner's uprising preceded it by 28 years, and there were others before that. The persistent nightmare of white society -- both North and South, but most especially in the South, for obvious reasons -- was that slaves would acquire arms and that, at some point, some latter-day Nat Turner or John Brown would arise, under whose leadership slaves would succeed in doing what they had previously failed to do.
Hence the widespread horror when black men, many former slaves, formed the 54th Massachusetts under the command of Col. Robert Gould Shaw in 1863 -- under the terms of President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation which went into effect on 1 January 1863. (Remember: by the time the Proclamation was published, the infamous Dred Scott decision of the Taney Court had been in effect for 6 years. Black slaves who managed to escape the Confederacy and enlist in the Union army would no longer be slaves, but neither would they be American citizens. Actual citizenship for black folks, both slave and free, would have to wait until the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868.) Even after the Civil War was over and Reconstruction was under way, even after the 15th Amendment was ratified, even into the brief "golden age" when black candidates -- many of whom were ex-slaves -- were elected to Congress ... even then the very thought of a black man with a gun would be to many people, both in the North and in the South, the very essence of Hell-on-earth made flesh. Hence the resurgence of violence against blacks following the Compromise of 1877, the Presidency of Rutherford B. Hayes, the withdrawal of Federal troops from the former Confederacy, and the failure to enforce the "Reconstruction Amendments" ... and the dying of the "golden age". Black men with the vote was bad enough. Black men with guns was Apocalypse.
So let's go ahead and take our tongue out of our cheek and pass gas during dinner at Downton Abbey by speaking plainly, shall we? The reason the NRA abandoned its advocacy of gun rights in the case of Micah Xavier Johnson in Dallas was because the issue was never about gun rights in the first place. Or rather, it was about gun rights, but only gun rights for white people, and even that was strictly secondary. For the real issue was about, and still is about, race.
Hence my diagnosis: at the bottom of the NRA's new-found modesty about gun rights lies, not any concern for the Second Amendment, but a latter-day version of the Reconstruction determination to reinforce white privilege and white power -- and de facto black slavery, 13th Amendment notwithstanding -- at any and all cost. The thought of gun rights for black people scares the hell out of the NRA no less than it would have scared John C. Calhoun. If Philando Castile or Alton Sterling or Micah Johnson had been white, the Twitter feed from the NRA leadership would by now be white-hot with allegations about a "new Ruby Ridge," a "new Waco," etc. But Messrs. Castile, Sterling, and Johnson were not white men. They were black men.
My advice: don't flinch when the NRA thunders about gun rights. It's just noise. The NRA is firing blanks.
James R. Cowles
Minuteman ... Aldaron ... Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic
"Stop Killing Black People" ... All Nite Images ... CC by SA 2.0
John C. Calhoun ... George Peter Alexander Healy ... public domain
Black soldier mustering out of military service ... Waud, Alfred Rudolph - "Mustered Out" Harper's Weekly, May 19, 1866 ... public domain