About 15 years ago, I served on the staff of a Senator who was an ardent opponent of gun control. Once I asked him why he was so adamantly opposed to any restrictions on gun sales, when even the police favored banning sales of certain kinds of assault weapons.
The Senator dismissed these concerns with a wave of his hand. "The real purpose of the Second Amendment," he explained, "is to guarantee the right of revolution. If the government ever becomes too oppressive, the American people will be able to rise up and overthrow it."
"But Mr. Senator," I objected, somewhat taken aback, "we are the government."
"That's right, Joe," he replied, "but we might not always be."
I have repeated this story many times over the years, and I never failed to include an ironic postscript: The only time in my life when I seriously discussed the possible overthrow of the U.S. government was in the course of a conversation with a U.S. Senator that took place in the Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill.
In the wake of the awful events in Newtown, however, I find myself recalling this conversation -- but without any trace of irony or amusement.
In his great book, Democracy in America, the incomparable Alexis de Tocqueville warned Americans against succumbing to an "immense tutelary power" that reduces us to "a herd of timid and industrious animals of which government is the shepherd." Like many conservatives, I believe that the ultimate goal of American "progressivism" (although not, of course, its avowed intent) is to turn Tocqueville's warning into a fact. And as we all know, it is the sad fate of sheep to end up in the slaughter-house.
Is the Second Amendment a way of protecting the American people against a sheepish fate, or is this entire way of thinking a prime example of what the historian Richard Hofstadter called "the paranoid style" in American politics?
And even if my former boss was correct, and the right to purchase the most dangerous weapons is a genuine insurance policy against "progressive" efforts fundamentally to transform American society, could it be that the premium we are paying -- the periodic slaughter of innocents -- is simply too high?
I don't know the answers to these questions, but I think about them a lot now.