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Virginia gun owner militia open carry
Courtesy Jeff Hulbert

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The Heller decision fueled the growth of a kind of homegrown authoritarianism that understands “militia” to include self-appointed “patriots” with the sovereign power to take life not in defense of self or law, but in support of a particular social or racial order. Despite the majority decision in Heller explicitly stating that the individual right recognized is “unconnected with service in a militia,” militia-of-one vigilantism has long been promoted by the NRA and other populist authoritarian and paramilitary groups. Gun owners have been refashioned as citizen-soldiers tasked with defending a particular notion of freedom—a freedom to use violence to establish order, despite the bounds of the law. As Fox News’ Tucker Carlson put it in his defense of Rittenhouse: “How shocked are we that seventeen-year-olds with rifles decided they had to maintain order when no one else would?”

Most justifications for this interpretation of the Second Amendment rely on an out-of-context quote from George Mason, a Virginia delegate to the 1787 Constitutional Convention. In the written record of the convention, Mason says: “I ask, Who are the militia? They consist now of the whole people, except a few public officers.” Mason was concerned that the draft of the Constitution would allow a future government to exempt the wealthy and powerful from service in state militias. The “whole people” he referenced meant to include those from all classes or ranks. One need only read a longer excerpt of Mason’s statement to see this: “I ask, Who are the militia? They consist now of the whole people, except a few public officers. But . . . if that paper on the table gets no alteration, the militia of the future day may not consist of all classes, high and low, and rich and poor; but they may be confined to the lower and middle classes of the people.” This sentiment is also found in Section 13 of the Virginia Declaration of Rights (1776), which Mason authored and which served, years later, as the model for the U.S. Bill of Rights.

However, the NRA manipulatively uses only the first two sentences of Mason’s comment to claim he meant that every individual is de facto a militia member—independent, self-appointed, and unregulated. Moreover, the NRA leaves out the “now” in the second sentence, obscuring Mason’s comparison of the present condition with a future one. The altered version of this quote is cited frequently. In his book Guns, Crime, and Freedom (1994), LaPierre writes, “Mason made explicit his deep-set belief that the individual armed citizen was the key to protection against government excesses and in defense of freedom.” The definition of militia on the website of the NRA’s Institute for Legislative Action is the truncated and altered Mason quote. In a 2001 letter to NRA leadership, former U.S. attorney general John Ashcroft pledged support for the individualist reading of the Second Amendment by citing the chopped-up Mason quote. In 2018, in a televised town hall after the massacre at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, NRA spokesperson Dana Loesch was asked how she defines a well-regulated militia. “George Mason was one of the founding fathers,” Loesch replied, without noting that Mason refused in the end to sign the Constitution. “And he said ‘the militia is the whole of the people.’ It’s every man. It’s every woman. That is who the militia is.” Paramilitary groups such as the Oath Keepers and Three Percenters have also relied on this intentional misreading.

The mainstreaming of this particular understanding of what the Second Amendment means by “militia” results from a decades-long campaign to legitimate far-right vigilantism among law enforcement and civilians. It is rooted in a reinterpretation of the Second Amendment that allows for a rhetorical focus on individual freedom and a tendency toward militarization. Those on the far-right claim that private individuals constitute the militia in the Constitution, and since the Second Amendment recognizes the right to bear arms for militia members, defending their use of arms is a defense of a constitutional right. Any effort to regulate that right is, in turn, interpreted as an attack on the Constitution itself.

Indeed, LaPierre has called the Second Amendment “freedom’s most valuable, most cherished, most irreplaceable idea.” Charlton Heston, who served first as NRA vice president and later president, provided the most succinct formulation of this view in a speech to the National Press Club in 1997. The Second Amendment, he said, “is, in order of importance, the first amendment. It is America’s first freedom, the one right that protects all the others. . . . The right to keep and bear arms is the one right that allows ‘rights’ to exist at all.”

Underlying this claim is the notion that vigilante violence is simultaneously foundational and exceptional. It need not conform with the law, because such violence is necessary for law to exist at all. This is an intoxicating invitation to authoritarianism. It is a formula for self-appointed saviors unconstrained by law or norm. They determine who the enemy is and deputize themselves, in the name of the Constitution (and “the people”), to use violence against that enemy.

— Chad Kautzer in America as a Tactical Gun Culture

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