Story highlights

Paul Begala: Iowa candidate Joni Ernst told NRA she has right to use her gun against government

He says: This is scary. Here's a question for Ernst: Under what circumstances is it OK do this?

Founders: Citizen-soldiers might act on behalf of government, not shoot at it, he says

Begala owns 22 guns. Citizens don't have right to turn weapons on police, military, government

Editor’s Note: Paul Begala, a Democratic strategist and CNN political commentator, was a political consultant for Bill Clinton’s presidential campaign in 1992 and was counselor to Clinton in the White House. He is a consultant to the pro-Obama super PAC Priorities USA Action. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) —  

If it was just a political pander, it was a beauty. But if it was a serious statement of philosophy, it was chilling – even scary.

Joni Ernst, the Iowa candidate who has vaulted to within an inch of United States Senate due to her boasting of hog castration in this year’s most inventive political ad, was speaking to the National Rifle Association in 2012.

Paul Begala
Paul Begala
PHOTO: CNN

“I do believe in the right to carry, and I believe in the right to defend myself and my family – whether it’s from an intruder, or whether it’s from a government, should they decide that my rights are no longer important.”

Huh?

This notion – that the Second Amendment gives citizens the right to fire upon federal officials, or their local police, or sheriffs or even U.S. military personnel – is common among right wingers. But it’s one thing to hear, say, goofball Ted Nugent honk off that way. (The Nuge, by the way, has boasted about how he avoided taking up arms in defense of his country during Vietnam.) It is another to know that someone with those loopy views is one step away from the United States Senate.

The Washington Monthly blogger Ed Kilgore has asked the right question – the one any Iowa voter should be putting to Ms. Ernst: “Since you brought it up, exactly what circumstances would justify you shooting a police officer or a soldier in the head?”

Good question, Ed. Is it OK to do so if, say, the Supreme Court stops the counting of votes so as to give the presidency to the candidate who got fewer votes? I don’t think so.

How about segregation? If ever American citizens were oppressed by their government it was African-Americans under Jim Crow. Thank God we had Dr. King and not Ms. Ernst leading the civil rights movement.

Perhaps Ms. Ernst reserves her bloody right to truly egregious government actions, like ensuring affordable health care, even to folks with pre-existing conditions? Lord, I hope not.

As Michael Waldman notes in his excellent new book, “The Second Amendment, A Biography,” the Second Amendment was designed to ensure that citizen-soldiers would be the heart of our national defense. A standing army, such as we have now, would have been anathema to our Founders. Indeed, Thomas Jefferson, in his first Annual Message to Congress (now known as the State of the Union Address), said, “nor is it conceived needful or safe that a standing army should be kept up in time of peace.”

Should America be invaded, Jefferson said, the proper response was “the body of neighboring citizens as formed into a militia.” The Founders thought citizen-soldiers would be the military, acting on behalf of the government. They did not advocate armed citizens taking on federal officials.

Don’t believe me? Ask George Washington. Gen. Washington, as president, forcefully rejected the notion that American citizens had a revolutionary right to take up arms against their government – even against the most hated government officials enforcing the most hated government program. President Washington and his Treasury Secretary, Alexander Hamilton, sought to enforce a tax on whiskey, which Congress passed in 1791. A group of Pennsylvania whiskey distillers objected, violently. In what was known as the Whiskey Rebellion, they refused to pay the tax and burned the home of the federal tax collector.

Washington personally led 13,000 troops to crush the rebellion (the only time a president has commanded troops in the field). Washington was willing to shed blood to ensure no one took up arms against his or her own country.

To argue that the Second Amendment allows citizens to turn their guns on their government is to repudiate the actions of George Washington, as well as the Constitution itself.

I say this as a gun owner – and I’m not just talking about some puny 9 mm like the one Ms. Ernst brags about. At last count I have 22 guns. I use them to hunt, shoot targets, and bond with my family. My grandfather was a hunter and gun owner, as is my father, as am I – as are my sons.

But neither we, nor Ms. Ernst nor any American has the right to turn those weapons on American military personnel, peace officers or other government officials. To suggest otherwise betrays our Founders, our Constitution, and common sense.

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