In April 2012, Rand Paul's nightmare seemingly came true nearly a year before he'd even gotten the chance to dream it. Four people were having a dinner party and playing cards when all of a sudden, a robotic plane showed up outside their window and interrupted their game with a barrage of bullets.
For 13 hours on the Senate floor this March, Paul railed on the government's willingness to use armed drones on American civilians, even suggesting that the government could use an unmanned plane to kill an American eating dinner with his family. But he never mentioned the possibility that the person flying the drone could be a neighbor.
That idea sounds farfetched, but some legal scholars think that Second Amendment rights might extend to robotic arms, including drones outfitted with weapons.
Fortunately, the poor card players that went down in a hail of drone-borne gunfire last year was a family of prop dummies, and the bullets were computer generated. The video was designed to promote the release of Call of Duty Black Ops 2, where players can control an unmanned attack drone. But the nation collectively freaked out when Kyle Myers, known online for blowing stuff up with big guns, posted video of that "Prototype Quadrotor with Machine Gun" on YouTube. It has since been viewed more than 18 million times.
But soon, the technology to arm your own personal drone might become a reality.
Most commercially-available drones, for the time being, aren't strong enough to carry a firearm, and experts say the recoil from firing most types of guns would likely down a small drone. But as technology improves and guns with little- or no-recoil become more commonplace, armed drones could become an issue.
In Texas, for instance, the Montgomery County Sheriff's Department floated the idea of arming drones with a no-recoil shotgun that shoots rubber bullets and tear gas dispensers. In other YouTube videos, hobbyists claim to have created homemade armed drones.
One video shows a remote controlled helicopter outfitted with a .45 caliber handgun. Another video shows a six-rotored helicopter that has been modified to shoot paintballs. The man who created that craft wore a bandana covering his face and voice modifying technology, because attaching weapons to aircraft is expressly forbidden by the Federal Aviation Administration.
In February, Jim Williams, the man in charge of regulating drones for the FAA, was unequivocal about the question.
"We currently have rules in the books that deal with releasing anything from an aircraft, period," he said at an industry meeting. "Those rules are in place and that would prohibit weapons from being installed on a civil aircraft."
But when someone inevitably ignores the FAA and arms a drone to use it to shoot targets or defend their farm or house, will they have a Second Amendment argument to fight the FAA?
It's a question that Peter W. Singer, director of Brookings' 21st Century Defense Initiative, wrote in 2010 was an "all too real question" surrounding the age of drones.
"Does the Second Amendment cover my right to bear (robotic) arms? It sounds like a joke, but where does the line stop, and why?" Singer wrote.
"A lot of people have been moseying around this issue, but if you can't arm your own Cessna, you probably can't arm your own drone," Singer tells U.S. News. "We're in the early days of this, so anyone saying this could never ever happen is a pretty good way to prove they don't know what they're talking about."
The Second Amendment question was recently explored in-depth by Dan Terzian, a U.S. District Court clerk in Guam, who published "The Right to Bear (Robotic) Arms" in the Penn State Law Review earlier this year.
According to Terzian, the answer to that question comes down to the interpretation of the Supreme Court in a couple cases, most importantly District of Columbia v. Heller, the 2008 decision that overturned Washington's handgun ban.
That decision held that the Second Amendment "protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in the militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home," but limits the amendment's protections to weapons that are "in common use at the time."
By that definition, robotic weapons would almost certainly not be considered in "common use," much like rocket launchers, tanks and cannons. But Terzian says that as the technology improves, armed drones could one day become popular enough to become commonplace.
"There are a lot of people in other countries who are basically making autonomous weapons at their home, but they're not necessarily using handguns, they're using Nerf guns or paintball guns," Terzian says. "There's no fundamental [Second Amendment] difference between using a squirt gun and a firearm."
According to Terzian, Congress could, with one law, make it illegal for Rand Paul's nightmare to come true - at least if perpetrated by a civilian. Because armed drones are currently not common, Congress could simply expressly ban them, making it impossible for them to ever become an everyday thing.
"If Congress chose, it could ban robotic weapons, meaning robots would never be in common use, and thus never armed," he writes. "But just because Congress can ban them, does not mean it should ... robotic weapons [could be] both more effective and safer than firearms, so banning them, as opposed to regulating them, would by myopic."
Lawmakers in Washington have proposed bills that would restrict when private companies, individuals and public agencies can use unarmed drones, but it has yet to strongly consider armed drone legislation.
If Congress doesn't act, Terzian argues that one day, robotic weapons could defend factories, public places and, eventually, people's homes. As autonomous decision-making intelligence improves, Terzian says that automated weapons might have legitimate self-defense uses that could potentially be lawful.
It's also unclear, he says, whether someone would have the right to attach their handgun to a small drone and then use it for target practice on their private property. The FAA certainly wouldn't approve, but Terzian says it might not be inherently illegal.
"If they're using a pistol attached to a mechanical device - you have a right to that pistol, you can do whatever you want with it unless you are breaking the law with it," he says. "I think it's at least possible that some of those laws could be challenged. I'm not sure we're to the point where you'd win, but you could try."
But those who most often challenge anti-gun laws aren't ready to get behind citizens' armed drone rights – either real or perceived.
"It's nothing I've ever heard of anyone wanting to do," Dave Workman, a representative for the Citizens Committee for the Right to Keep and Bear Arms. "It certainly is an interesting idea, but if you're launching an armed, remote controlled aircraft, I'd imagine you'd run into some serious safety issues. What if it crashes and you have a loaded gun on it?"
Though the FAA expressly forbids people from arming their private planes, it doesn't forbid the shooting of guns out of the windows of planes or helicopters. While it is illegal in most states, in some places, it's specifically permitted. In 2011, Texas passed a law that allows licensed hunters to shoot feral hogs from helicopters.
"Coyotes and hogs are regularly hunted on ranches out of small aircraft with rifleman at the trigger. I don't know what the legal implications of using a drone to do that would be. I don't think most people see that it's within the purview of the Second Amendment," says Dudley Brown, a pro-gun lobbyist and executive director of Rocky Mountain Gun Owners. Brown says he's not ready to support someone who wants to arm a drone, but that some "wealthier gun owners" he knows have mounted guns to their aircraft, FAA regulation or not.
The possibility that someone might arm a drone, legality be damned, is more pressing than the Second Amendment implications, Brookings' Singer says.
"There's a risk of terrorist or criminal use of this technology," Singer says. "People are thinking about packing these with explosives and carrying out 9/11-style attacks."
In 2011, the FBI arrested a Massachusetts man named Rezwan Fedaus who planned to pack a remote controlled airplane with explosives and fly it into the Pentagon. In the Middle East, Hezbollah has used rudimentary armed drones against Israeli forces.
Ferdaus got caught because he tried to collaborate with FBI agents posing as al-Qaeda operatives. But using a remotely-piloted vehicle makes it inherently more difficult to catch a criminal or terrorist, says Tony Hallett, CEO of Community Research Corporation, a Pennsylvania-based consulting company that is exploring the forensic problems that drones will present. In an upcoming academic paper, he argues that home grown drone attacks are inevitable.
"Most street cops aren't ready for this—it's not going to occur to them that an attack that just happened might have happened because of a drone," he says. "Conceivably, you can put a gun on a drone and a guy can sit on the other side of the country with an iPad, fly it into a crowd and open fire, then fly it away and crash it into the river. Who's going to solve that? It'll leave no trace evidence at the scene, nothing."
For now, seriously-armed drones remain primarily a military asset, and few people have the $17 million necessary to buy a Predator drone. But as technology improves, as it always does, mounting a gun on a hobbyist drone will no longer be a technological hurdle – meaning Rand Paul's nightmare scenario wouldn't necessary be exclusively reserved for government agencies.
"Technology-wise, you could solve the recoil issues," Singer says, referring to the Texas police department's plan to use a non-recoiling shotgun with rubber bullets. "From there, the conversion from nonlethal to lethal rounds is a policy leap, not a technological one."