A Washington Post profile of Republican presidential candidates’ aggressive rhetoric on guns contains one of the most remarkable paragraphs written about the 2016 election to date:
[Sen. Ted] Cruz spoke briefly about the San Bernardino shooting, saying it was the product of “the evil of radical Islamic terrorism.” He warned of the dangers of “disarming the citizenry.” The Second Amendment, he said, not only grants people the right to keep and bear arms to protect their families, homes and lives but also is a “fundamental check on government.”
Cruz’s statement that a right to bear arms is a “fundamental check on government” echoes views offered by some especially radical elements of the gun rights movement. At a speech to the National Rifle Association’s Leadership Forum in 2014, for example, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke told the audience that “you have to be willing to resist any attempt by government to disarm law-abiding people by fighting with the ferociousness of a junkyard dog. For it says in the Declaration of Independence that it is our right, it is our duty, to throw off such government and to provide new guards for our future security.”
This rhetoric, however, typically does not penetrate into high-ranking federal officials. In District of Columbia v. Heller, for example, all five conservative Supreme Court justices joined an opinion recognizing that many “weapons that are most useful in military service” may be banned in the United States. Yet it is difficult to see how the Second Amendment could serve as an effective “check” on a government that arms its military with tanks, fighter jets and nuclear missiles if the people who are supposed to do the checking could only fight back with semi-automatic firearms.
The Washington Post’s juxtaposition of Cruz’s take on the Second Amendment with his views on “the evil of radical Islamic terrorism,” however, highlights an incoherence in his views. Though investigators are still uncovering what motivated Syed Rizwan Farook, an American citizen, to massacre innocents in San Bernardino, California, evidence is mounting that he and his wife were radicalized and potentially drew inspiration from foreign terrorist groups such as the Islamic State.
If the Second Amendment is a check on government, however, that necessarily places the power to decide when government has crossed the line that justifies the use of “Second Amendment remedies” in the hands of gun owners. Someone like Mr. Farook is likely to have a very different idea of where that line should be drawn than Senator Cruz, but it is very difficult as a constitutional matter to restrict gun rights (or any other rights) solely on the basis of a person’s viewpoint or religion.
An American citizen who rises up against their own nation’s government in solidarity with ISIS, in other words, will benefit from Cruz’s insurrectionist conception of the Second Amendment just as much as whoever Cruz hopes to benefit with it.