The past month has seen a blistering exchange of letters in the editorial pages of the Albany Times Union on the subjects of gun violence, gun control and the right to bear arms. The hottest point of controversy, inevitably, is over the right of rebellion inferred from the Second Amendment to the Constitution. That the necessity of militia for "the security of a free state" and the uninfringed "right of the people to keep and bear Arms" implies a right to rebellion is strongly disputed. If you believe the amendment does authorize you to rebel, it seems that nothing offends you so much as a critic calling your theoretical rebellion "treason." From distant Michigan, Jim Kress's response to such a charge is typical (See also Patrick O'Connel's closer to home). He asks rhetorically whether it would be "treason" for the subjects of Stalin or Pol Pot to rise up against their ruler, as if "treason" exists only in the eyes of tyrants. The answer to Kress's rhetorical question depends on whether you see "treason" in moral or statutory terms. If the former, then of course no uprising against an unjust despot is "treason," but in the eyes of sovereign law in the country in question, of course it is! That was the point of the statement attributed to Patrick Henry at the time of the Stamp Act. According to legend, at least, when his denunciation of George III was called treason, Henry didn't duck the charge but said, "If this be treason, make the most of it!" If he did say this, he probably spoke from an understanding that treason is ultimately defined in historical terms, as the old poem says: "Treason never prospers; what's the reason?/For if it prosper, none dare call it treason." Those in the U.S. who reserve their right to rebel, whether they claim (as Kress does) a "natural" right to do so or not, act as if their presumed moral superiority preempts the verdict of history.
Intellectually, there ought to be a test that determines whether an uprising against the government is treason in any sense of the word. By their own standards, potential "traitors" would need to prove that the government had in fact become a tyranny. While some factions propose a kind of commonsense standard -- the Oathkeepers, for instance, would need to see a flagrant violation of the Constitution, too many people set the bar of provocation dangerously and vaguely low. I've seen too many people argue that they should rebel if the government taxes them too much or tells them what to do too often, without arguing whether the taxing or telling is constitutional or not. The more that people depend on an assumption of "natural right" to rebel, I fear, the less need they'll feel to prove their case by an appeal to the Constitution. However, even those who depend upon their reading of the Constitution to determine whether a government has become a tyranny should recognize some hurdle's they'll have to jump before they can even begin to justify an armed uprising. Most importantly, they can't expect the rest of the population to defer to their own reading of the Constitution. It may seem like a dangerous waste of time to the zealots, but the Supreme Court should be heard from on any alleged breach of the Constitution before anyone considers taking up arms. If the Court rules against the Executive or Legislative branch and is ignored, relief might still be had at the next election. If the next election doesn't take place, then all bets are off. Some may worry that it'd be too late by then, but the issue at hand isn't the effectiveness but the justice of rebellion. If you want to rebel and not be called traitors by anybody, these are the steps you'll have to take and like. Or you could just shoot anyone who calls you a traitor. Then none will dare question you, and the old poet will be proved correct.