February 2011

Top of This issue Current Issue

The Reset Switch

by Jonathan Wallace jw@bway.net

I've written occasionally about guns and the Second Amendment since the third issue of the Spectacle in 1995. The following year, I first considered whether the Second Amendment embodies a built-in right to revolution. Gun advocates often express this via the following trope which I first mentioned in 2001: "The Second Amendment is the reset switch of the American revolution."

I find this trope fascinating: its an example of a brilliant phrase, using an intense, captivating metaphor. When something is so well worded, it has a tremendous persuasive value, and has a tendency to run all the way into the end-zone before we can get a good look at it. I have also written extensively here about the pitfalls, dangers and deceptions of political language and the fact that certain words and phrases function only as stop signs meaning "No more discussion" or "I have won this argument".

In the mission statement for the Spectacle, I promised to examine "what commonly used words and phrases really mean, as contrasted to what they appear to mean". A reason I find the "reset switch" trope fascinating, even more important than its brilliance as a metaphor, is the huge gap between what it says, which is often repeated, and what it implies or the philosophical thicket into which it leads us, which is rarely discussed.

The purpose of this essay is to discuss what the "reset switch" idea, really means, in light of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and numerous others by Jared Loughner.

Occurrence of the trope

A Google search on "reset switch" found the following relevant content:

Some of the Framers of the Constitution felt that the 2nd was the "reset switch" for this country if for some reason the government forget it's intended purpose. newsgroups.derkeiler.com

If it gets overturned by the best Court we are likely to see for some time; will that cause a call to hit the reset switch.

Remembering that the reset switch is open revolution. www.defensivecarry.com

The sad fact is, though, that if you look at history, practically all governments in the history of the human race have either started as tyrannies or devolved into them. Freedom is the exception in history, not the rule. The draftsmen of our Bill of Rights were extremely well aware of this and wrote in the second amendment to act as a reset switch should tyranny ever come to our shores.

Owning guns isn't about hunting, or sport-shooting, or even home defense, in the end. Owning guns is about keeping the ultimate power of the nation in the hands of the people. That is why civilian ownership of M16s is legal here. Yes, it's a responsibility, but a free country depends on responsible citizens.

"People should not be afraid of their governments; governments should be afraid of their people." www.conceptart.org

The Second Amendment was intended to make sure the citizenry had a way to hit the reset switch on the United States if we ever find ourselves with a Stalin, Hitler, or domestic version of King George. www.thehighroad.org

A straw man?

One thing I try not to do in the Spectacle, as a matter of self respect (self-reSpectacle?), is to knock down straw men. If the "reset switch" is only referred to by marginal people in comments on user-driven web sites, is it worth a lead article here?

In fairness, not every Second Amendment advocate necessarily argues for a right of revolution. Some may find sufficient as a persuasive argument that the amendment gives us a right to defend ourselves against private depradations, not the government. I went looking for examples of a linkage, express or implied, between the Second Amendment and a right (under certain circumstances) to shoot oppressive government officials.

What the bloviators say

Since I wrote Language, Lies and Power, about the implications of the right wing tarring quite centrist Democrats as "socialists", I have regularly checked in at Rush Limbaugh's site to see what the voice of the fundamentalist right is saying on the matters which interest me. In researching the "reset switch", I looked for uses of the phrase by Rush, Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin--and didn't find any. Since they all love colorful tropes, I was surprised and intrigued not to find it. I can't read their minds, but would love to know if the phrase never came to each of their attention, or possibly was discarded as dangerous or distasteful.

However, it isn't hard to find expressions of the same, or of related, ideas by each of the three. In 1995, Rush Limbaugh said:

[T]he second violent American revolution is just about -- I got my fingers about a quarter of an inch apart -- is just about that far away. Because these people are sick and tired of a bunch of bureaucrats in Washington driving into town and telling them what they can and can't do with their land...

The Oklahoma City bombing happened not long after, and Limbaugh (shades of today's debate about the shooting of Gabrielle Giffords) was blamed for contributing to the volatile environment which made the bombing possible (which made him so angry, he's still complaining fifteen years later).

On February 9, 2009, he again spoke about the imminence of revolution (having apparently learned nothing from the earlier experience):

My point to you, ladies and gentlemen, is that there is a pulse of revolution starting today. This says so much about the media, too. They could find more of these doubters if they wanted to because they are all over the place. Contrary to what you may have been led to believe, the whole country is not a bunch of lemmings walking over the cliff behind Obama, who can fly. They are not in lockstep with the supreme leader. There's a lot of doubt. There is a lot of anger.

Recently, he also said:

What is a hatred for the Second Amendment all about? It's a hatred of liberty. It's a hatred of freedom. There's no question that it is and this has to be taught because the natural spirit, the natural yearning of the human being is to be free.

Limbaugh routinely characterizes the left as on the verge of grabbing everybody's guns:

You know, everybody is jumping up and down for joy over the Supreme Court Second Amendment ruling today, and perhaps rightly so. But the fact that it's a 5-4 vote, if this court were actually following the Constitution that gun vote should have been nine to nothing, it should have been unanimous. That's a no-brainer. Even the Bill of Rights is up for grabs with this crowd and the left. Folks, we are hanging by a thread, we are hanging by a very thin thread.

Even though Obama has indicated no intention of pursuing gun control legislation, Limbaugh tars him (along with the left in general) with that brush. In the wake of the Giffords shooting, he said:

They're now moving to gun control. That was also predictable. What that happens, you know that they're beginning to change course on this. Now, I guarantee you that somewhere in a desk drawer in Washington, DC -- someplace in an FCC bureaucrat's office or someplace -- the government machinery will be in place to take away as many political freedoms as they can manage on the left. They already have it in place, just like the health care bill, Obamacare, was already written years ago. It was in a desk drawer waiting for the moment that they could begin to implement it.

Limbaugh is very careful; he is a master of knowing where the line is, and maybe going a little distance over it, but never too far. He uses innuendo like a master, leaving it to his audience to link up the dots. I was not able to find Limbaugh saying that we have a right to use our guns to oppose an oppressive, gun-grabbing government, but the implication is obvious: if the Second Amendment involves a love of freedom, if the Obama administration is planning to take your freedoms away and impose an autocratic and socialist system, and to repeal your gun rights, doesn't it logically follow you should use your guns to oppose it? Limbaugh will give you all the building blocks to construct that proposition, but won't come out and say it.

Glenn Beck is not as smart or careful as Limbaugh and has explicitly linked the Second Amendment to the shooting of government officials.

In the following, he does not spell out what he means by "last line of defense". It could be "against thugs and murderers":

I believe in the Second Amendment so much and I believe it is so critical to our survival. It is the last line of defense, the Second Amendment, and I believe this organization absolutely believes in it full fledge and I will, ever time, give an extraordinary sum of money to the NRA.

But in this rambling disquisition, he goes all the way:

This is an editorial in today’s USA Today. This isn’t 1787. The opposing view editorial by Gun Owners of America and its opposing view Second Amendment debate on Wednesday. It’s utterly laughable. Although the review is unduly restrictive, attorneys say people need to keep and bear arms in order to prevent the government from becoming tyrannical is preposterous. This isn’t 1787. It’s 2008. We have gotten over our fear that our government is going to follow that of King George III.

No, we haven’t. It’s gotten worse. Is anybody — I mean, is anybody — they are not afraid? Really? That’s the consensus out there? That the government isn’t grabbing up too much power, that the government — I mean, this is coming from the left, not necessarily from the right. Now it’s coming from the right as well. But everybody was — everybody was screaming, "Wait a minute, wait a minute, wait a minute, Homeland Security, the PATRIOT Act, what, are you crazy? You’re going to let them have all of that power? That’s too much power, that’s intrusive, that’s infringement of our rights."

The left has been screaming that the government is getting out of control. Now the right is screaming that the government is out of control. That’s one thing America agrees on! Our government is out of control, and what does this pinhead want to do? Take away guns. Take away the guns because, quote, "Even if the military were to turn against us, the idea of a bunch of private citizens subduing the armed forces is too comical for words." Oh. Well, then we just give up. Oh, okay. All right. Okay. .

I mean, what, are you insane? Every time a government takes away the guns, every time they take away the guns, crime gets worse, gun crime, violent crime gets worse and it usually ends up, I don’t know, with the death of millions. I mean, protect the homeland, man, protect the home front. Protect your own family. And also, have the right to protect yourself against the government.

Sarah Palin is a bit harder to pin down. In my personal opinion, she is stupider than Limbaugh or Beck--about on a George W. Bush level--and as a result, her handlers don't want her on the record too much, so she tends to communicate via quite brief Facebook and Twitter postings. Prominent in the debate since the Gifford shootings has been Palin's use of gun metaphors in these brief communications--the "Don't retreat, reload" tweet and the use of what she herself called a "bullseye" in a Facebook graphic showing such bullseyes (interpreted by others as crosshairs) over Democratic districts, including Giffords'. Palin is a lifelong NRA member, beloved of that organization. As Alaska governor, she signed the Texas amicus brief in the gun rights case which led to the Supreme Court's 5-4 holding incorporating the Second Amendment against the states via the 14th, a great victory for the right to carry in places which desperately don't want you to, like Washington DC and New York City. (Giffords also endorsed this amicus brief.)

From the audio of a May, 2010 speech to the NRA (a safe audience, before whom she could kick back a little more):

...liberty loving constitutionalists, those who know why we need the NRA, who are proud to be part of the NRA...protection of our constitution is the security our nation needs...Our rights hang in the balance, and we have to fight for them diligently...(After claiming that the only reason Obama does not promulgate gun control is fear of the consequences:) Don't doubt for a minute that if they thought they could get away with it, they would ban guns, and ban ammunition, and gut the Second Amendment....Its the job then of all of us, of the NRA and its allies, to stop them in their tracks.

In the same speech, she mentions the controversy over her targeting graphic (which Gabrielle Giffords had complained about at the time) and says that the use of these metaphors (also "don't retreat, reload") is just the way she, and people like her talk; no harm is intended by it.

Just slightly further afield is Sharron Angle, the losing Republican and Tea Party candidate against Harry Reid in Nevada.

You know, our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. And in fact Thomas Jefferson said it's good for a country to have a revolution every 20 years.

I hope that's not where we're going, but, you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around? I'll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.

Angle by the way, was endorsed by Sarah Palin, who said:

She's got GUTS and is putting up with more crap than she deserves because the libs don't know what to do with her and the support she has...

Here's Rush running interference for Angle (and Palin):

How many of you could survive a media anal exam? None of us could! None of us conservatives could. So why do we have and attach this standard to people who have decided they want to get involved. Whatever they say about Palin, imagine if it was you they're talking about? If you had decided to seek office, or whatever they say about -- I don't know, pick somebody. Sharron Angle. Whatever they're saying about Sharron, imagine if it was you that they were saying that about. It's exactly what they would think of you, you're not a professional politician, you're not from inside the Beltway, you're not somebody that can grant anybody access. Imagine if it was you instead of Sharron Angle or you instead of Christine O'Donnell, you instead of Sarah Palin, imagine what they'd say about you and your family. Conservative families are fair game, unlike everybody else. They can not only destroy you but your family. And yet we've got people on our side willing to risk this because they think it's important enough to try to save the country. So you have people on the left that are naturally gonna take their shots at these people because they're afraid of them, afraid of them winning. And we got some people on our side, the professional Republican politicians in the Beltway, some of them are also afraid of these outsider upstarts winning. So they gotta join in and tar and feather 'em as somehow oddball, freak kooks of nature.

In reviewing Second Amendment rhetoric in general and looking for assertions by individuals in particular, I had a vision of a quilt sewed by many hands. Certain panels of the quilt have images of people using their guns to shoot murderers and rapists, while other panels portray the shooting of government officials. If you are working on a quilt, and find it contains images which you don't agree with, which shock and offend you, shouldn't you do one of two things: either walk away, or at the very least, issue a statement that (though you will continue working on it) you don't endorse those parts of it which portray the killing of government people? Where are the statements on the Rush Limbaugh site, in Palin's speeches, saying they don't agree with Sharron Angle on "Second Amendment remedies", or with Glenn Beck's assertion that the Second Amendment means you "have the right to protect yourself against the government"?

Guns as subject and object

New York State law requires me to obtain a license in order to keep certain species of turtle as a pet. If I had a turtle for which I had not obtained a license, I might be fearful of the state turtle-grabbers showing up at my door, and taking my cherished pet. But I would not contemplate striking them with the turtle if they tried to do so. In fact, as much as I loved the turtle, the most I could do to try to get him back would be to sue the state. If I lost, I would live with the consequences, other than writing an angry article here.

Guns are a uniquely volatile subject matter, because they can be used against the people who are trying to take them from you. This fact, which everyone knows and which is usually not spoken of, means that when people like Sarah Palin say things like, "Its the job then of all of us, of the NRA and its allies, to stop them in their tracks," it would be courteous if they would clarify whether they mean "by using our guns" or not. Am I going too far if I suggest that this is always the implication, in gun-related discussions?

If I am wrong, I propose to start a new business immediately distributing bumper stickers which, instead of "You can take my gun when you pry it from my cold dead hands", say, "You can take my guns when I fail to defeat you at the polls, you succeed in passing legislation, and I lose my lawsuit to get it overturned."

The victims and the Second Amendment

One thing which makes this shooting unique in a morbid way is that the two best-known victims were public officials who both owned and carried guns and were very protective of Second Amendment rights. They both contributed panels to the quilt.

Giffords posted the following on her web site in June 2008:

As a gun owner, I am a strong supporter of the Second Amendment. In February, I was proud to sign the Amicus Brief in District of Columbia v. Heller asking the Supreme Court to uphold the lower court ruling that overturned the long standing DC gun ban.

This is a common sense decision that reaffirms the Constitutional right -- and Arizona tradition -- of owning firearms. I commend the Court for ruling in favor of restoring our right to bear arms.

She also says the following on her House web site in a section entitled "House Votes Against Leadership":

Congresswoman Giffords supported measures that would bar the Interior Department from prohibiting an individual from possessing a firearm in a national park or wildlife refuge (April 30, 2009, Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act)

There is also a "Guns" section:

•Congresswoman Giffords signed Amicus Briefs submitted to the Supreme Court in support of rights granted under the Constitution’s Second Amendment regarding the DC and City of Chicago gun bans.

•Congresswoman Giffords is a cosponsor of the Veterans Heritage Firearms Act which allows a 90-day amnesty period during which veterans and their family members can register in the National Firearms Registration and Transfer Record any firearm acquired before October 31, 1968.

•She was a cosponsor of the Second Amendment Enforcement Act in the 110th Congress. It would restore Second Amendment rights in the District of Columbia by correcting DC’s law in order to restore the fundamental rights of its citizens under the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution and thereby enhance public safety.

•Congresswoman Giffords spearheaded a letter to Southwest Regional Chief of U.S. Forest Service Gail Kimball on May 12, 2008 expressing concern of decreasing opportunity for recreational shooting on National Forest Service land. It was signed by Congressman Trent Franks and Harry Mitchell

Judge John Roll had ruled in a federal lawsuit against the Brady Bill back in 1994. The law required local "chief law enforcement officers" to conduct a background check on handgun purchasers, until a federal database came on line which would allow gun dealers to do so directly. An Arizona Sheriff, Richard Mack, sued to negate the provision, after refusing any role in conducting such searches. Mack had said:

I have met thousands of concerned patriotic Americans, and one things has remained constant, the people of this great country are afraid! Afraid of big government, afraid of losing their lands and homes to ruthless tax collectors, afraid of losing their children to bureaucrats who disapprove of spanking, and most of all, afraid of having their God-given rights and freedoms trampled by the very servants charged with protecting them.

Roll granted a permanent injunction against enforcement of this portion of the Brady bill:

In summary, the Brady Act's provision mandating that state law enforcement officials perform a background check exceeds Congressional powers under the Commerce Clause, thereby violating the Tenth Amendment.

Roll also found that the provision was void for vagueness under the Fifth Amendment, because the "reasonable effort" required by the law enforcement officer was not defined:

[T]he Court finds that Sheriff Mack faces criminal sanctions should he violate the Brady Act's mandatory provisions, but the statutory duty imposed upon him as the CLEO of Graham County is imprecise and indefinite. This runs afoul of the Fifth Amendment Due Process Clause.

Note that the Tenth Amendment argument is very unusual; it is the one (favored by the Tea Party today) which says, "The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people." In 1931 the Court said the Tenth Amendment "added nothing to the [Constitution] as originally ratified." The amendment has been used far less often to invalidate legislation than any other Bill of Rights provision.

The Supreme Court in 1997, in one of its few modern Tenth Amendment decisions, affirmed Judge Roll's holding on the Brady Bill.

Former Arizona sheriff Richard Mack maintains a web site, on which he says:

Hi, I'm Richard Mack, former sheriff of Graham County, Arizona, and long-time crusader for freedom and individual rights. Right now, it is vital that we restore the Constitution as the supreme law of the land. The greatest threat we face today is not terrorists; it is our own federal government. If America is conquered or ruined it will be from within, not a foreign enemy.
Also this:

The sheriff absolutely has the power and responsiblity to defend his citizens against all enemies, including those from our own Federal Government.

Both Giffords and Roll were gun owners.

In a horrendously resonant statement, Giffords told the New York Times, "I have a Glock 9 millimeter, and I’m a pretty good shot.” She was concerned by the threats which had been made at the time of her health care town halls, the smashing of her office windows, the man who had dropped a gun on the floor at one of her meetings.

According to the same article, Roll "had his wife and many people who worked with him take lessons at the Marksman Pistol Institute, an indoor range downtown."

The range's owner said mournfully: “He knew how to shoot, but he’d just been to church, and he probably didn’t have his gun.”

I wonder if Giffords will be as fervent about gun rights after her recovery, or if either she or Roll had a moment, as Loughner began firing, to think, "I helped make this possible."

Loughner's weapon

That same Times article, and extensive coverage elsewhere, establishes that Loughner's Glock was purchased perfectly legally at a local licensed gun shop, Sportsman's Warehouse. No surprise here; the weapons in every shocking mass shooting are always purchased legally, by somebody. Although Loughner had been arrested for drug paraphernalia and (according to some accounts) for vandalism, any charges had been erased from his record through a "diversion" process where he successfully completed classes (lecturing him on why not to use drugs or commit vandalism). His expulsion from community college for his bizarre, threatening behavior did not leave any criminal or mental health record; neither did the Army's refusal to take him due to drugs in his blood. Loughner's federal background check therefore came back clean.

The extended magazine he bought, which allowed him to fire thirty-three rounds before reloading, was illegal until six years ago:

Such clips had been illegal under federal law until the 2004 expiration of the assault-weapons ban, which prohibited clips of more than 10 rounds. The ban was not renewed by a Republican Congress and president closely tied to the gun lobby, and Democrats pushed it to the back burner when they took power...This isn’t the first time the lack of a ban on extended clips has had deadly consequences. Authorities say Nidal Hasan used high-capacity clips during his rampage at Ft. Hood in 2009, as did Seung-Hui Cho at Virginia Tech in 2007.

This is relevant because it illustrates a linkage, Second Amendment rhetoric to real world legislative actions, to consequences in particular cases including the Loughner shooting. It provides the necessary background for the ensuing discussion of the meaning and interpretation of the "reset switch" trope.

Jared Loughner as a thought experiment

OK, here is the crux of the matter. It took me a while to get to it, because there was so much interesting information to spotlight along the way.

Was Jared Loughner exerting his Second Amendment "reset switch" rights when he shot Gabrielle Giffords?

Please note that for the purposes of the following analysis, I assume that the "reset switch" trope is actually a rule--not useless, empty, provocative rhetoric, but an accurate indication of the Framers' intentions, which may actually legitimize the behavior described (shooting government officials) under certain circumstances.

I also assume for the purposes of discussion, that a rule in this context equals a right--that if a rule says you can do something, you have a right to do it.

Lawyers (I am one) spend all their time interpreting what rules really mean, what behavior they justify, and what they bar; what rights they grant or trump. Analyzing "reset switch" as if it is a rule and a right is a useful exercise; its proponents, cited above, and fellow travelers such as Glenn Beck, all refer to it as if it justifies certain behavior under certain circumstances. So lets try to establish, what behavior, when?

Loughner apparently premeditated the attack, and his motives are strongly suggested by his rambling, apparently schizophrenic Internet writings. Here is Mark Potok of Southern Poverty Law Center, analyzing Loughner's strange rhetoric:

At one point, Loughner refers disparagingly to "currency that's not backed by gold or silver." The idea that silver and gold are the only "constitutional" money is widespread in the antigovernment "Patriot" movement that produced so much violence in the 1990s. It's linked to the core Patriot theory that the Federal Reserve is actually a private corporation run for the benefit of unnamed international bankers. So-called Patriots say paper money -- what they refer to with a sneer as "Federal Reserve notes" -- is not lawful.

At another, Loughner makes extraordinarily obscure comments about language and grammar, suggesting that the government engages in "mind control on the people by controlling grammar." That's not the kind of idea that's very common out there, even on the Internet. In fact, I think it's pretty clear that Loughner is taking ideas from Patriot conspiracy theorist David Wynn Miller of Milwaukee. Miller claims that the government uses grammar to "enslave" Americans and offers up his truly weird "Truth-language" as an antidote.

So we can trace the following line: Loughner concludes the federal government is trying to brainwash him, and otherwise committing destructive and illegal acts against its own people; as a direct result of this fervently held belief, Loughner deliberately shoots government people. For our purposes, it doesn't matter if Loughner was of the left, or right, if he ever listened to talk radio or had heard of Sarah Palin. It is sufficient that he had a political grudge, and that he acted on it.

Loughner's mug shot--crazy-eyed, wide smile--indicates his pride and satisfaction in the murder of a federal judge, Giffords' right hand man, a woman in her seventies and a nine year old girl. He looks proud to have thrown the switch, done his small part to reset the American revolution.

Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sarah Palin, Sharron Angle and Sherriff Mack have all made public statements indicating they don't think that Jared Loughner had a right to shoot Gabrielle Giffords.

Palin said on Facebook:

My sincere condolences are offered to the family of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and the other victims of today's tragic shooting in Arizona. On behalf of Todd and my family, we all pray for the victims and their families, and for peace and justice.

Limbaugh said on his show:

Here we have a deranged, obviously mentally insane young man who has fired on and killed a number of people, wounded others.

A summary of some television remarks made by Glenn Beck, posted on his site:

Glenn said that only Jared Lee Loughner is to blame for the events that happened in Arizona. This should not be a time to politicize Loughner’s violent actions, but it is a time to grieve, stand together, and denounce violence from all sides.

Sharron Angle's statement:

The despicable act in Tucson is a horrifying and senseless tragedy, and should be condemned as a single act of violence, by a single unstable individual.

And Sherriff Mack obviously didn't think Loughner was doing the right thing killing the judge who impressed him so much by throwing out the Brady Bill provision. He wrote a eulogy, which began

On January 8, 2011, Federal District Judge John Roll was gunned down by a maniacal coward lunatic.

Each of them, however, has either said (Glenn Beck, Sharron Angle, Sherriff Mack) that it is appropriate to shoot government officials sometimes, or strongly implied it (Limbaugh), or said we must take unspecified action against the government to stop them seizing our guns (Palin). The moral onus is therefore on all of them to clarify the rules, to tell us under what circumstances its all right to shoot people from the government.

A vague rule?

The more I thought about the "reset switch" trope, the vaguer it seemed to me. I analogized it to the following statement:

If you are driving on any north or southbound avenue which intersects it, you are permitted to traverse 42nd Street.

This is true, but incomplete as a rule. A more complete statement would be:

If you are driving on any north or southbound avenue which intersects it, you are permitted to traverse 42nd Street, unless the opposing light is red, you are traveling at a speed of more than thirty miles an hour, or traffic conditions ahead would cause your car to remain in the intersection when the light turns red again.

Thus the first rule stated, that you are allowed to cross 42nd street, is phrased as if it is complete in itself--but lacks virtually all the information you would need in order to act on it.

If the "reset switch" is an incomplete rule, what else would you need to know in order to throw the switch?

A very important piece of information would be whether it is ever permissible for an individual to decide, based on his own evaluation of reality, to shoot government officials.

If the answer is yes, it is hard to see why Jared Loughner's acts may lead to a death sentence. We need to find the exceptions, the subsidiary rule-set which explains why an individual acting alone (a "lone gunman") is sometimes right and sometimes wrong.

Perhaps you are not allowed to shoot government officials while schizophrenic. But how would you know? Schizophrenics never think they are crazy. You would basically have to shoot some government people, in order to find out you shouldn't have.

Formulations such as "you can but only for the right reasons" are tautologies: you are right if you're right. Phrases such as "in response to illegitimate acts of oppression" are really no better, as there is still too much wiggle room. We would need to write a rulebook the size of the Oxford English dictionary; I challenge anyone to write a one sentence rule.

One of the rules in our dictionary might be to the following:

It is permissible to shoot government officials if they are coming after you with guns.

Of course, government officials--sherriffs, cops, FBI--pursue people with guns drawn every day, in the discharge of their legitimate law enforcement role. So we would have to amend this one to say:

It is permissible to shoot government officials if they are coming after you with guns illegitimately.

Ooops! We just put ourselves right back in a mire of subjectivity, inside Jared Loughner's brain, --and we still need a dictionary size document defining "illegitimate".

The American revolution itself (the first one) sheds some interesting light on the question. It was an illegal, quasi-criminal, uprising by disloyal British citizens--until it succeeded. So perhaps the best phrasing we will be able to find is:

It is permissible to shoot government officials if the historical consensus in later centuries is that you did the right thing.

If the answer is no, that an individual should never decide by himself, who else is involved in the decision? Here are some possibilities:

It is permissible to shoot government officials if a majority of Americans in a referendum would approve your actions.

But how can you know? Again, you would have to shoot them in order to find out if you were right or not.

It is permissible to shoot government officials if someone you implicitly trust (your pastor, or Glenn Beck, or Sherriff Mack, for example) tells you it is all right.

But you are still on your own. Sherriff Mack is not looking over your shoulder, shouting "Fire!" If you are wrong, you will be the one getting the lethal injection, not Sherriff Mack.

The 42nd street rule didn't say, "you can cross if Glenn Beck says you can or you think its all right." It attempted to identify objective circumstances which legitimized (green light) or banned the crossing (congested traffic conditions). Our attempt to base the "reset switch" on objective formulations already failed. Making it subject to some kind of decision-making process doesn't save it. There is no referendum you can hold in advance to determine that its all right to shoot someone. The gunman always stands alone, makes his decisions alone, at the crucial moment.

Why isn't it a defense at law?

Rights such as those of free speech or self defense are often exercised conditionally, based on a belief in legitimacy which must be confirmed or cancelled by a decision-making body later. For example, I publish an explicit sexual photograph I believe is protected by the First Amendment, but I have guessed incorrectly; the Supreme Court rules it obscenity and off I go to prison. I shoot someone coming after me with a knife, in the belief I am exercising my right of self defense, but the court holds that based on the facts and circumstances (he was in a wheelchair, a hundred feet away, and there was a fence between us) that I did not legimately exercise such a right. Off I go to prison.

Perhaps the "reset switch" is nothing more than a variation on this--a right I can argue as a defense in a criminal trial, and which may or may not be accepted by the judge?

In fact, if the "reset switch" trope states a right, shouldn't it be recognized as a defense?

There is no Second Amendment defense to murder yet recognized. There is "self defense" and there is "justifiable homicide". Self defense typically means you used reasonable force to avoid imminent harm to yourself, so it would never cover a mere proposition that an unarmed official needed shooting because of something he had said or done elsewhere.

Justifiable homicide is a larger category which includes self defense but also certain other lawful actions--of government officials:

JUSTIFIABLE HOMICIDE. That which is committed with the intention to kill, or to do a grievous bodily injury, under circumstances which the law holds sufficient to exculpate the person who commits it.

2. It is justifiable, 1. When a judge or other magistrate acts in obedience to the law. 2. When a ministerial officer acts in obedience to a lawful warrant, issued by a competent tribunal. 3. When a subaltern officer, or soldier, kills in obedience to the lawful commands of his superior. 4. When the party kills in lawful self-defence.

This raises the enjoyable question of how meaningful your right to shoot a government official is, if it must later be validated by another government official.

Linguistic implications

A 'reset switch" implies a part of a mechanism, which, when thrown, will initiate an orderly shut-down and restart. For example, the "restart" option you reach from the "Start" tab on your PC screen, is in effect a reset switch implemented in the software.

From that point of view, the shooting and killing of government employees is not appropriately described as a "reset", because it does not initiate an orderly shut down, but, in effect, a quite violent and chaotic one. Suggesting that it initiates any kind of a "re-start" (as opposed to a mere ending) is a leap of faith.

The trope attempts to describe something which occurs outside of a system as being a part of it. The American revolution was not a "reset" of the British empire; it was an act of violent rebellion against it. The attack on the World Trade Center was not a "reset", nor was the invasion of Berlin in 1945 or of Baghdad in 2003. Each of these was an act of violence by a competing system, attempting to overcome the victim and replace it with something.

The language of the "reset switch" trope attempts to disguise an external act of violence launched from outside a system, as an orderly, normal and planned for occurrence within the system. An important part of what it does is to disguise violence as something else, as the normal readjustment of a system. It implies, in fact, that murder has a honored place in the functioning of a democracy.

A constitutional analysis

The Supreme Court ruling in Heller v. D.C. confirms that the Second Amendment protects an individual right. The Court in giving the history of the amendment, repeatedly says that "Every citizen has a right to bear arms, in defence of himself and the State" (emphasis added). This certainly sounds like it militates against shooting government officials, but I suppose a true zealot would argue that sometimes the best way to protect the state, is to overthrow it. Since the Court also cites a couple of nineteenth century sources opining that the Amendment allows for self defense against "usurpation" or "tyranny", it leaves the question ambiguous. It would be a Very Good Thing if the Court, in its next Second Amendment opinion, would clarify the issue of when (if ever) the Second Amendment justifies the shooting of government employees.

The United States Constitution contains various provisions which could be called "reset switches". These include most prominently the Article V power of the people, acting through their representatives, to amend the Constitution. An election is a reset switch, the president's veto power is one, and so is the Congress' ability to override the veto. The power of the Senate to oppose and negate a treaty under its "advise and consent" power is a reset switch. The Supreme Court's power to cancel legislation by ruling it unconstitutional (not provided explicitly in the Constitution but a fact of life since Marbury v. Madison) is a major reset switch.

All of these involve the usual republican machinery, of the people acting through elected representatives, within the checks and balances of the system. A "reset switch" in the Constitution that legitimated an individual decision to kill a government official would be a very strange one indeed. (It would also deny the victim his Fifth Amendment right of due process.)

I have often written here about the Framers' fear of "faction" as expressed in the Federalist. They hated direct democracy because of the fear that some group of people, behaving impulsively and in the grip of emotion, would act violently against some other group. The Constitution was drafted, carefully, to minimize the likelihood of faction. For example, Hamilton said in Federalist 9:

It is impossible to read the history of the petty republics of Greece and Italy without feeling sensations of horror and disgust at the distractions with which they were continually agitated, and at the rapid succession of revolutions by which they were kept in a state of perpetual vibration between the extremes of tyranny and anarchy. If they exhibit occasional calms, these only serve as short-lived contrast to the furious storms that are to succeed. If now and then intervals of felicity open to view, we behold them with a mixture of regret, arising from the reflection that the pleasing scenes before us are soon to be overwhelmed by the tempestuous waves of sedition and party rage.

The advocates of the "reset switch" trope would have you believe that Hamilton meant to add:

But never mind all that, if the person inspiring your rage is a government official.


The "reset switch" trope is meaningless nonsense, grammatical English words phrased as if they were a rule, but which cannot be elucidated into any kind of formal, meaningful proposition. The trope is therefore very dangerous, giving comfort to people like Jared Loughner who don't have the capacity to look behind the words and see they have no content.