Guns Against Government

A maker of the gun ad the NFL didn't want in the Super Bowl wants Americans to understand they might need guns to fight tyranny.


On Super Bowl Sunday, sports fans will see many high-profile TV commercials that will likely become the talk of the nation. One ad that you will not see during the big game is already being talked about: one for gun manufacturer Daniel Defense, depicting a veteran talking about his responsibility to protect his wife and infant.

That ad was rejected by various Fox affiliates in eight markets Daniel Defense wanted to hit. The commercial violated NFL policy, the company was told, which prohibits advertising for "Firearms, ammunition or other weapons…however, stores that sell firearms and ammunitions (e.g., outdoor stores and camping stores) will be permitted, provided they sell other products and the ads do not mention firearms, ammunition or other weapons."

Daniel Defense's defenders argued—correctly, but tendentiously, since the ad is clearly about the value of guns as home defense—that the ad should have passed muster since it didn't explicitly mention or show firearms (though it did wrap up with a Daniel Defense logo that included a gun).  

Since the company also has a storefront that sells things other than guns, according to Guns and Ammo, that too should have allowed the ad to slip through. (Indeed, in 2012 Daniel Defense aired an ad on a Georgia station during the Super Bowl with no problem.) The company offered to replace the image of the gun with either an American flag or the Second Amendment phrase "shall not be infringed." Still, no go.

Having their ad spiked by the NFL got the company a fair amount of press, perhaps in the end even more valuable than paying the likely millions to have the ad run. It would have been easy for them to guess that significant elements of American media and business culture are leery of guns—especially to being linked to the message that firearms, despite their manifest dangers when misused, are a good thing, a valuable tool any husband or father should want to possess.

Certainly, at least one person involved with the ad knew that plenty of Americans mistrust and fear guns. Eric Katzenberg wrote and produced the ad for Daniel Defense. He was also a producer on a documentary on gun rights called Assaulted: Civil Rights Under Fire, which had a limited theatrical run in the fall and is now streaming via iTunes and Amazon.

The gutsy and blunt documentary is built on a sharp awareness that lots of Americans are hostile to free ownership and use of weapons; the movie makes the case that a lot of that hostility comes from lack of empathy, from a sense that there are "gun people" and "not-gun people," and the former are weird and alien and have few rights the latter need respect. To combat that notion, the documentary plays to the idea that various American groups not typically associated with guns ought to treasure their Second Amendment rights: gays, women, blacks.

"The story of the 2nd Amendment and its infringement throughout our history has always had a strong theme of racial oppression," wrote Katzenberg, along with editor Jonathan Fischer and executive producer Geoff Arrobio, in a joint email interview. "The right to bear arms was denied Native Americans, Blacks, Mexican and Asians.  We didn't have to design these facts, only present them. Up until the early 1900s gun control was clearly racist. These days, that page of the gun control playbook has turned. Now it's elitism on a global scale." 

Assaulted is narrated by actor and former rapper Ice-T. In an irony the film does not spell out, Ice-T in the early 1990s was vilified by Charlton Heston, later head of the most prominent gun rights organization in America, the National Rifle Association, because his band Body Count had sung about killing cops. Despite the contentious identity politics of gun control, a wide range of Americans, with little else in common, can agree that they should have the right to the best tools available for self-defense.

The movie—and American history—make it clear that the capacity for armed self-defense can be an embattled minority's best defense in a violent and imperfect world. Assaulted relates at length a largely forgotten weird and horrific historical moment, from the Tennessee city of Athens in 1946.

The county was ruled by a corrupt political oligarchy, which was challenged by a slate of reformers, mostly veterans returning from World War II. When reformers tried to check what they saw as clear ballot fraud, including preventing a black man from voting, some of them were arrested.

With the ballot boxes under the control of corrupt deputies in jail, and some of their compatriots unjustly imprisoned, a gang of reformers took weapons from a local National Guard armory and engaged in open armed revolt against the county government, including firing machine guns on the jail and eventually dynamiting it.

No one was killed, though 20 people were wounded. The story is presented in the movie as a startling object lesson: sometimes "duly constituted authority" is clearly in the wrong, and might be unstoppable by anything other than armed resistance.

It's a theory labeled by its enemies the "insurrectionist" theory of the Second Amendment, though one needn't be a stereotypical rabid right-winger to accept it.

But linking the bizarre tale of Athens, Tennessee with the story, also told at length in the movie, of how law officers illegally disarmed citizens after Hurricane Katrina flooded New Orleans in 2005, a bold and difficult position is laid out convincingly: private ownership of weapons is indeed a potential last defense against tyranny, and disarming citizens in an emergency can be government's highest priority.

With those two ideas in your head, the dire possibilities of a legally disarmed society can seem more alarming than any number of scary stories about mass shootings or statistics about suicides. Most Americans understand that most proposed gun laws will do almost nothing to make us safer, and that indeed freer access to weapons can make us safer.

The movie quotes UCLA law professor and blogger Eugene Volokh saying that, whether or not it is historically true that the Second Amendment was at least partially intended to provide citizens with a final check and balance against tyranny, he doubts an American court would ever accept such an argument. Thankfully, a mere belief in the constitutional protection of individual self-defense, if maintained intelligently and reasonably by courts, should be sufficient to allow Americans to keep their guns relatively unmolested.

Some have argued that the very fact that guns freak out and offend lots of people is a sufficient reason for civically responsible gun owners to back down on asserting Second Amendment rights too strongly. Esquire's Charles Pierce (in a piece largely based on a misreading of the meaning of a proposed new Florida law) dipped this week into some bludgeoning irony, pushing the idea that the gun nuts think that gun-resisting Americans are under an obligation to not just tolerate guns but actively love them.

Not so. Gun rights advocates merely want to be free to amuse themselves and defend themselves, and to hold the ultimate insurance policy on their selves, their family, and even their civic order, without undue, niggling, and unproductive restrictions.

Despite a past year or so filled with well-publicized crimes committed with guns, with a few unfortunate exceptions on the state level, the political momentum for more gun regulation is still absent. Given that, even some supporters of the Second Amendment might find hat-tipping to insurrectionism unnecessarily alarming to their opponents in a civic debate who already think, well, that they are pretty weird.

But for those with an undue fear of inanimate objects for the harm they might cause that leads them to muscle in on a core constitutional right, a little counterfear of the harm that not having those inanimate objects could cause seems an apt corrective. Super Bowl watchers won't see a message of the value of armed self-defense next Sunday. But that message is already embedded in our Constitution, and our history—especially its darker corners.