Talk about half-cocked.
Florida Republican Rep. (and alleged sexual predator) Matt Gaetz claimed the Second Amendment exists so that the people can be well-armed enough to overthrow their government, an alarming if legally incorrect bit of saber-rattling just months after a (poorly armed) insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
“We have a Second Amendment in this country, and I think we have an obligation to use it,” Gaetz said to cheers from the hundreds in attendance at a Thursday night rally alongside Georgia Republican Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene. The event in Dalton, Georgia, in Greene's district, was part of the controversial duo's "America First Tour."
“This is a little history lesson for all the fake news media. The Second Amendment is not about hunting, it’s not about recreation, it’s not about sports. The Second Amendment is about maintaining within the citizenry the ability to maintain an armed rebellion against the government, if that becomes necessary,” Gaetz continued. “I hope that never does, but it sure is important to recognize the founding principles of this nation and make sure they are fully understood.”
This claim is patently false—but the comments aren’t about what’s really constitutional. They’re aimed at encouraging the hard-liners who actually listen to politicians like Gaetz and Greene that it’s their constitutional right to stand up violently against those they oppose.
And this isn’t as small a number as some might believe. An in-depth poll released Thursday from the Public Religion Research Institute found that 15 percent of Americans agreed that “because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” That includes 28 percent of Republicans.
Gaetz’s remarks come less than six months after rioters overran the U.S. Capitol on January 6 after being stirred up for weeks by President Trump. The chaos disrupted Congress’ certification of President Biden’s election victory and left five people dead, but it could have been much more violent. Most of the rioters, including the militia members who came prepared to fight, did not have guns on them, and pipe bombs placed at the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee did not detonate.
There’s no guarantee that the January 6 Capitol attacks will be the high-water mark of political violence in this period of American history. A solid majority of Republicans believe the last election was stolen from Trump, and the former president, and close allies like Gaetz, have only further fueled distrust in the government and democratic institutions since he left office.
But that doesn’t mean Gaetz has his history or constitutional context correct.
A major reason the Founding Fathers of the United States decided the Articles of Confederation wasn’t working and moved to create a stronger federal government under the U.S. Constitution was because they were shaken by Shays’ Rebellion, when Massachusetts farmers took up arms against the state and its governor was forced to raise a private army to put down the rebellion because there was no standing U.S. Army at the time.
Moreover, the Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld limits on the level of firepower Americans are allowed to own. You can’t have a nuclear bomb in your garage or a tank in your driveway. And rulings have blocked Americans from owning machine guns, grenade launchers or other weapons of war.
Even the Supreme Court’s more strident Second Amendment originalists have agreed that there are limits: Then-Justice Antonin Scalia said in 2012 it was obvious that “the amendment does not apply to arms that cannot be hand-carried,” like cannons, and that items like “hand-held rocket launchers that can bring down airplanes, that will have to be decided” as well.
There’s widespread legal agreement even on the right that the Second Amendment isn’t unlimited, though the Supreme Court hasn’t fully delineated exactly what those lines are and the new 6-3 conservative majority on the court means it might be even more hostile to gun control than it would have been in recent years.
Gaetz’s remarks managed to outdo even the wildest comments from Greene during her speech, a real feat. Greene used her speech to argue compare Nazis to Democrats, claiming “Democrats are now a national socialist party,” just days after repeatedly comparing mask mandates to the Holocaust. And she called the left-wing Squad led by New York Democratic Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez the “Jihad Squad.”