Guns and the Tyranny of Extreme Rhetoric

The argument that assault rifles are necessary to protect against tyranny is a lunatic idea.

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FE_DA_130116GunShowSHOTLasVegas.jpg
Firearms instructors Logan Martin and Andres Gonzalez of Calgary, Alberta, look through the sights of Sig Sauer Swat Patrol AR rifles during the annual SHOT Show in Las Vegas.

Let's say you're making lunch in the kitchen while your kids play in the living room. When you come in with their mid-day meal, the place is a disaster. You look at them. They look at you. And before you know it they're blurting out something like "the elephant did it!"

Now, I suppose there's something to be said for that argument. It takes a quick wit. Or at least a keen sense of mammalogy. But it's got one fundamental flaw: There is no elephant. And you know that's true no matter how hard they argue otherwise.

These days, some on the right have seized on an invisible elephant all their own. They've named him Tyranny, and to hear them tell it, he's big, he's scary, and he's tearing up the place. The problem, of course, is that he doesn't exist—but that hasn't stopped them from trying to convince the rest of us that he does.

[See a collection of political cartoons on gun control and gun rights.]

Their latest effort came in the form of a Scott Rasmussen poll that found "65 percent See Gun Rights As Protection Against Tyranny." If it's true, that's quite a finding. It means most of us believe that our government may descend into tyranny and that guns are the right way to protect ourselves from that eventuality.

Of course, there's good reason to doubt Rasmussen: His polls reliably lean to the right. But for the sake of argument let's take his findings on their face. How should we reconcile them with the great many other polls that suggest broadening support for gun control? The 55 percent in a CNN/Time poll who say gun controls should be tightened. The 58 percent in an ABC/Washington Post poll who back an assault weapons ban. The 63 percent in a CBS/New York Times poll who support banning high capacity magazines. The 78 percent in the same poll who favor creating a database to track all gun sales in the United States.

If you take the Rasmussen poll on the one hand and all the other polls on the other, it can only mean that there are many millions of us who somehow believe both that Americans need guns to protect ourselves from a government that may turn tyrannical and that we should make it harder for Americans to get guns. This is a, ahem, nuance that Rasmussen fails to address.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should Obama's Gun Control Proposals Be Enacted?]

And then of course, there's this: According to a recent Pew survey, only 33 percent of Americans have a gun in their home at all. If so many of us really think that tyranny looms and that guns are our protection but so few of us actually own them…well, we must be a pretty self-destructive lot.

As it happens, there was another poll in the field at around the same time as Rasmussen's that was about the same issue, and conducted by a similarly conservative pollster—Wenzel Strategies (the pollster for Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, among others). Wenzel asked respondents whether they believed the Second Amendment "exists to allow Americans to have small arms for hunting and self-protection" or "to give Americans the ability to defend themselves against government if it becomes tyrannical?" The results? Forty-seven percent said it's just for hunting and self-protection. A whopping 8 percent said it's just to defend against tyranny. And 40 percent said all of the above.

[Read the U.S. News Debate: Should High-Capacity Ammunition Magazines Be Banned?]

In other words, two polls that can be relied on to skew right, but on the question of tyranny and guns, Rasmussen's big majority turns into Wenzel's minority. And a less partisan researcher would presumably find that support is actually significantly lower than is suggested in both.

None of this, however, put the brakes on the Rasmussen poll among the conservative press and punditry. Breitbart, NewsMax, FreedomWorks, etc. all quickly linked to or posted stories like the one Katie Pavlich authored at TownHall.com reporting that "an overwhelming majority of Americans believe the Second Amendment and gun rights are necessary to protect against tyranny."

Look, I don't put any more stock in Wenzel than I do Rasmussen. In my view, they both poll in the service of ideology rather than in an effort to uncover actual attitudes and beliefs. (Wenzel used his findings, for example, to suggest that we are more at risk of tyrannical takeover precisely because we don't think it's going to happen. Sigh.) And I have no doubt that there are those who actually believe that tyranny is in the offing. But the fact is, most of us, regardless of our political or ideological stripe, don't believe that. We know the difference between our government and that of other countries in world, between Saddam Hussein and John Boehner. The former subjected Iraqis to years of death squads and oppression. That's a tyrant. The latter's subjected Americans to years of weepy incompetence. That's irritating.

[Take the U.S. News Poll: Should Ammunition Be Sold Online?]

That doesn't make the tyrannists' rhetoric any less insidious, however. In asking us to conceive of an America that is profoundly different from the one in which we actually live they seek to conform our public policy to threats that exist only in some kind of make-believe place. When they are successful, the mainstreaming of lunatic ideas (like: We live under the threat of tyranny) makes possible ever more extreme policies (like: We all must have the right to semi-automatic weapons). And when we let that happen, nightmares of a very different kind than those conjured up by the ideologues really do come true.

When you take the invisible elephant out of your living room, you can clearly see what caused the mess (your kids.) And when you take the false threat of tyranny out of the equation, the case against assault weapons is pretty clear too (we don't need them).

The elephant doesn't exist. And it's time for us to say so.

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