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The best point Jon Stewart made in his epic breakdown-slash-takedown of gun enthusiasts last night, is his ultimate conclusion that they are motivated mainly by "imaginary Hitler," i.e., this ridiculous fantasy about the threat of "government tyranny" necessitating an armed population. The idea that such fears even justify unfettered access to guns, let alone formed the primary motivation for the inclusion of the Second Amendment in the first instance, is utterly absurd.

First of all, no one can explain or describe, for practical (let alone legal) purposes, exactly what "government tyranny" would look like, let alone how we would know it has occurred, who gets to define it or decide whether or not it has occurred and how it is to be decided, by what standard, etc. Neither can anyone explain or describe how exactly one would go about using a gun to either prevent "government tyranny" from occurring, or reverse it once it has occurred.

But the main point is this: If any individual or group can decide, unilaterally and extralegally, by their own definition and their own standard, that "government tyranny" has occurred, is occurring or is about to occur, and by their own authority use their guns to threaten and/or murder everyone else's duly-elected representatives and duly-designated law enforcement officers, in order to prevent, reverse or destroy this condition of "government tyranny" that they and only they perceive, then this is not a free country. When the guns of a minority trump or nullify the vote of the majority (thereby placing that minority above the law), that doesn't prevent tyranny; that is tyranny.

What prevents "government tyranny" is not guns or armed citizens, but the system of government itself: three coequal branches, full representation, separation of powers, checks and balances, an independent judiciary, due process of law, habeas corpus, regular free and lawful elections, separation of church and state, and the complete absence of anything resembling a monarchy or hereditary royalty/noblility, an official state religion, or any other form of unaccountable authority. Every historical instance of so-called "government tyranny" that advocates of this position invoke took place in a nation that lacked any or all of these. There is nothing this government could possibly do for which there is not a lawful remedy, let alone that would require any citizen to be armed or use a gun. It would take outside intervention on a catastrophic scale, or unanimous, concerted lawless action by all three branches simultaneously and in their entirety, for the government of the United States of America to even begin to resemble anything that could reasonably be called "tyranny."  

The genius of the Founding Fathers was not that they made sure the citizenry could arm itself against the government that the Founders themselves created, and destroy it in a bloody and lawless coup at the whim of anyone who felt inconvenienced by the law or by having lost the last election. Their genius lay in creating a self-correcting system, one under which armed resistance or revolution would never, ever again be necessary.

I must apologize profusely, but it seems I made an error in the original diary as written that's gotten so out of hand in the comment thread that I need to move it below the fold for a more thorough discussion.

What I originally wrote was this:

Second, "government tyranny" is, at least on some level, a contradiction in terms. When one considers what these words actually mean, government is not tyranny, and tyranny is not government. The word "government," as in the act and function of governing, implies lawful authority and accountability; "tyranny" implies unlawful, arbitrary and/or unaccountable rule.

Now, what folks are reading into this is the premise, which I never intended to express, that it is impossible for any government to "become tyrannical," whatever that last quoted phrase is supposed to mean. Part of the problem with this debate is that phrases like "government tyranny" and "become tyrannical" are actually rather poorly-worded, and thus poorly-defined, poorly-understood and poorly-employed. People can have a protracted argument about this without ever realizing that they're each talking about a completely different thing.

With respect to "government tyranny," I initially attempted to clarify that I was using the word "government" as a non-count noun, to mean the act and function of governing, not as a count noun referring to the entity that governs this or any other nation. (Count nouns can be pluralized; non-count nouns can't.) And by "tyranny," I meant living in and being a nation that is the functional equivalent of the Third Reich or any other totalitarian dystopia, not the existence of occasional discrete bad acts, unlawful behavior, abuse of power, civil rights violations, &c., by individual governmental actors, or the occasional passage and enforcement of laws that citizens don't like or don't agree with.

Upon further reflection, and after reading a number of comments, I realized that I was relying on a far too limited and esoteric usage of the word "government" to make this particular point, and that the word is generally understood far more loosely. As is the word "tyranny," which has a completely different meaning if it refers to an act than if it refers to a condition.

All I ever meant to say here was that "tyranny" is not really governing, by the strictest understanding of what the verb "govern" actually means. To govern is one thing; to rule is another. Tyrants don't govern, they rule. Lawful authority is not the same as arbitrary, unaccountable, dictatorial power.  

I find it distressing that so many commenters took this clearly inadequately-expressed premise to mean something I absolutely did not intend to say. Apart from my own failure to express it properly and make the distinctions clear, I still don't think it's reasonable to take the idea that "governments cannot become tyrannical" from what I actually wrote. More to the point, the premise of the diary, drawing from Jon Stewart's commentary, was that gun enthusiasts (and right-wingers generally) are far too eager and willing to believe that they are being threatened and attacked and victimized and oppressed and they are only an AR-15 away from being herded into concentration camps and gassed to death because socialism. There's a not-so-fine line between vigilance and paranoia.

No one doubts or denies that there are bad actors in government, that things like abuses of authority and civil rights violations do occur, and that there are laws and law-enforcement methods out there that don't exactly live up to our ideals of liberty and justice. But as I understand the term, that is still a far cry from "tyranny." If every law we don't like constitutes "tyranny," and every bad act of every overzealous law-enforcement officer is an "example" of "tyranny," then the word "tyranny" has very little meaning, especially if everyone gets to decide for themselves whether any given law or act is "tyrannical."

But let's keep our eye on the ball here. We have a system of government that is designed to be self-correcting, to prevent true tyranny from happening in all but the most extraordinary circumstances, and to do so without any need for violence or bloodshed.

Thanks for reading, for the rescue, for the recs, for the comments, and for the thinking you've all made me do.

Originally posted to GrafZeppelin127 on Wed Jan 09, 2013 at 11:41 AM PST.

Also republished by Community Spotlight.

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