Josh Horwitz has been an American gun control activist for nearly 30 years. In 2009, he co-wrote a book warning that the idea of armed revolt against the government was at the center of the US gun rights movement.
Now, after a year that has seen heavily armed men show up at state capitols in Virginia, Michigan, Idaho and elsewhere to confront Democratic lawmakers over gun control and coronavirus restrictions, more Americans are taking gun owners’ rhetoric about “tyrants” seriously. Some of the same armed protesters who showed up at Michigan’s state house and at a pro-gun rally this summer were charged last week with conspiring to kidnap Michigan’s governor and put her on trial for tyranny.
Horowitz spoke to the Guardian about how mainstream the idea of insurrection has become in American politics, and why lawmakers have failed to challenge it for decades.
The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You argue in your book that the idea of violent insurrection against the American government is at the heart of American gun culture. What do you mean by that?
There’s a belief among some American gun owners that the second amendment is highly individualized and was placed in the constitution as an individual right to fight government tyranny. Therefore, each individual has the right to own whatever and however many weapons they want, free from any government interference. A licensing law or a universal background check law would mean the government knows who’s got a gun. If you believe there’s an individual right to insurrection, you can’t have any gun laws.
The drive to purchase semi-automatic assault weapons, like AR-15s, those weapons are often not purchased for self-defense, but for fear of government tyranny.
When the NRA says, “Vote Freedom First”, it’s not “Vote self-defense first”. They mean you get to decide when the government becomes tyrannical. The problem is that one person’s tyranny is another’s universal healthcare bill.
Is this concept of “insurrection” as the reason Americans should have unrestricted gun rights a very fringe idea?
It’s not every gun owner. But this movement is way larger than people think. And guns are now seen by a large portion of that community as a tool for political dissent.
When National Rifle Association CEO Wayne LaPierre says things like, “The guys with the guns make the rules”, or politicians and elected officials say, “We will rely on second amendment remedies”, what they mean is that people with guns will, in fact, set the political agenda and settle political disputes. That is a profoundly undemocratic idea. As Abe Lincoln famously said, “Any appeal from the ballot box to the bullet box must fail.” We are a country based on the rule of law. Guns don’t make you a super citizen with the ability to make special rules or have special political influence because you happen to be armed.
Guns don’t make you a super citizen with the ability to make special rules or have special political influence because you happen to be armed
Where does this “insurrectionary idea” come from? When did it take hold?
The idea that individuals have the right to fight against tyranny is as old as the republic. But you can trace the modern incarnation of this principle to the early 1990s, and the rise of the militia movement during Bill Clinton’s presidency, when national gun violence prevention laws, including the assault weapons ban and background checks, were instituted. There’s a path from Ruby Ridge and Waco [deadly standoffs between citizens and federal agents, both involving illegal gun charges] to the Oklahoma City bombing. The Michigan militia is where Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, got this start. He was making his living at gun shows. He bought fully into the gun rights agenda, and he ended up killing a lot of kids. I started to pick up the resurgence of this idea in the mid-2000s, at the end of Bush’s presidency and the beginning of Obama’s presidency.
How does racism play into this idea of “insurrection” and its place in US politics?
There is a big racial element to this. White men, especially, are feeling that the political reins of power are pulling away from them, and their grip on power is falling away. Guns are a way to exercise power, let’s face it. Power over policy. Power over people.
You first published Guns, Democracy and the Insurrectionist Idea in 2009. What kind of response did it get?
People didn’t react the way that I hoped, by saying: this is going to be a big deal unless we move forcefully to oppose it. Instead, a lot of elected officials, including a lot of Democratic elected officials, acquiesced to the idea of an insurrectionary second amendment. People running for president in 2004 and 2008 would use lines like, “The second amendment isn’t for hunting. It has to do with protecting ourselves, our homes, our families and our country from tyranny.” Nobody followed up with: “What do you mean? You think it’s OK to shoot politicians?”
This year, we saw the Michigan legislature taken over, the Idaho legislature taken over, and it’s like – there’s no opprobrium. There’s a sort of, “boys will be boys” response.
Why has politicians’ response to rhetoric about violent revolt been so muted?
I think there’s the idea that if this really happened, the US army would just mow these people down. “Oh, it’d be suicide if they did that.” But the US military should not be deployed in civilian places to begin with. What are we going to do, have tanks on our own soil? We’re not going to do that. The other thing is that this movement is really well armed. There’s a lot of firepower in civilian hands: .50 caliber sniper rifles, AR-15s, AK-47s.
If they really did it, it would be very, very complicated.
How significant are the numbers of US military members and police who personally believe in this insurrectionist idea themselves? This year, US military veterans and active duty service members have been charged in a number of violent plots, including some that were allegedly designed to spark a civil war.
There are some elements of law enforcement that are sympathetic to this. A lot are not, especially those in leadership. I have friends in the military, and, to many of them, this idea is complete anathema. But a lot of the demographics in the military are young white men who like guns. I do think the vast majority of law enforcement and the military will do their duty, but that doesn’t mean that everyone will.
What shifts have you seen since 2009 in how insurrectionism is playing out?
There’s been a huge change in the last four years, since Trump came to power. He doesn’t condemn violence. What he said about Michigan governor Gretchen Whitmer was awful. When he’s asked about a peaceful transition of power and he hedges, I believe it’s because he thinks he has a private militia that will back him up.
The insurrectionist idea is about fighting government tyranny, but it would be especially dangerous if it became in service of particular officials, and that’s what you’re seeing now.
What’s also changed: the amount of weapons that the boys have these days is obscene. The number of AR-15s and high-capacity magazines and assault weapons they have should scare anybody.
Are you worried that there could be a major insurrection against the US government?
My fear is that there will be violence if the election is contested, or if it looks like Trump’s losing. I worry that there will be efforts at intimidating election officials and voters.
I’ve always been concerned about the one-off person, the lone wolf who takes these ideas to the max. I am much more concerned now about organized efforts to subvert elections, democratic power, courts.
I am much more concerned now about organized efforts to subvert elections, democratic power, courts
You issued a report focused on how states can ban gun-carrying at polling places. Are you concerned about what could happen on election day itself?
I don’t think there’s going to be widespread violence at the polls. I think there will be places where people with guns will attempt to intimidate voters, but not by shooting or anything like that, and I think those places will be relatively rare. It’s really important that each polling place knows what their rights are, but I think there’s been enough time to get them up to speed. I don’t want people to be scared: the ultimate response to the insurrectionary second amendment is to go vote.
What do you think should be done now in response to all of this public conversation about insurrection?
Number one: there needs to be a clear public response, that people who exercise this “right” are not patriots, but traitors.
The second piece is a policy response. We need to limit access to assault weapons. As soon as legislatures open in 2021, they should ban guns at polling places. I would like to see them banning open carry everywhere. Peaceful protesters are now routinely intimidated by armed insurrectionists. The way they intimidate people is by openly carrying weapons. We have proved we can’t handle that as a society.
And people who have the bully pulpit need to be careful not to endorse the idea of an insurrectionary second amendment. Even if you believe in an individual right to own a firearm, the purpose of that right cannot be to kill government officials.
Have you seen any tipping point in how Democratic politicians are now responding to this kind of insurrectionist rhetoric?
Let me be completely clear: the biggest problem is Republican elected officials, and the Republican who consistently use the insurrectionary idea and cheer on this type of behavior. While I wish Democrats would stand up and not just acquiesce, the Republican party has bought into a “second amendment remedies” idea that is now a danger, a grave danger, to America.
The Republican elected officials in Virginia thought the gun rights march on the state capitol was the greatest thing since sliced bread. There are plenty of Republican officials who just think this is great.