This piece originally ran in the New York Times opinion section on September 18, 2019.

“Hell, yes, we’re going to take your AR-15, your AK-47,” Beto O’Rourke exclaimed at last week’s Democratic debate. The gathered crowd was enthusiastic about the proposal, but other Texans were … less receptive.

One — Briscoe Cain, a Republican state legislator from the Houston exburbs — responded with an ominous tweet: “My AR is ready for you Robert Francis” (addressing Mr. O’Rourke by his given name).

Mr. O’Rourke first brought up the mandatory buyback idea shortly after August’s string of mass shootings. Several well-known conservative commentators met the proposal with a series of warnings, exposing chilling and increasingly open hostility to majoritarian democracy on the right.

“So, this is — what you are calling for is civil war,” Tucker Carlson of Fox News said of Mr. O’Rourke’s comments. “What you are calling for is an incitement to violence.” On ABC’s “The View,” Meghan McCain maintained that “the AR-15 is by far the most popular gun in America, by far. I was just in the middle of nowhere Wyoming. If you’re talking about taking people’s guns from them, there’s going to be a lot of violence.” On Twitter, the conservative writer Erick Erickson said: “I know people who keep AR-15’s buried because they’re afraid one day the government might come for them. I know others who are stockpiling them. It is not a stretch to say there’d be violence if the gov’t tried to confiscate them.”

Bear in mind a critical point: A buyback law could not take effect without approval from majorities in both houses of Congress and endorsement by the president. This is all but impossible without unified Democratic control of government; in fact, because our electoral system puts Democrats at a forbidding structural disadvantage, especially in the Senate, Democrats would need to command overpowering supermajority support to turn such a proposal into law.

In that light, all of these ominous “there will be violence” warnings clearly imply that it simply doesn’t matter whether or not mandatory buyback legislation is enacted by duly elected representatives of the American people with an extraordinary popular mandate, because the wildly outvoted minority would nevertheless be right to regard the law as an intolerable injustice that warrants retaliatory violence. Just ask them.

The likes of Erick Erickson jamming a cocked finger into his jacket pocket and pointing it at democracy may not strike terror in your heart. But the seditious principle behind these blustering, elliptical threats is genuinely alarming.

Democracy is what we do to prevent political disagreement from turning into violent conflict. But the premise of Trumpist populism is that the legitimacy and authority of government is conditional on agreement with the political preferences of a shrinking minority of citizens — a group mainly composed of white, Christian conservatives.

Who, you may sensibly ask, granted Tucker Carlson’s target demographic veto power over the legislative will of the American people? Nobody. They got high on their own supply and anointed themselves the “real American” sovereigns of the realm. But their relative numbers are dwindling, and they live in fear of a future in which the law of the land reliably tracks the will of the people. Therein lies the appeal of a personal cache of AR-15s.

Weapons of mass death, and the submissive fear they engender, put teeth on that shrinking minority’s entitled claim to indefinite power. Without the threat of violence, what have they really got? Votes? Sooner or later, they won’t have enough, and they know it.

Nearly every Republican policy priority lacks majority support. New restrictions on abortion are unpopular. Slashing legal immigration levels is unpopular. The president’s single major legislative achievement, tax cuts for corporations and high earners, is unpopular. 

Public support for enhanced background checks stands at an astonishing 90 percent, and 60 percent (and more) support a ban on assault weapon sales. Yet Republican legislatures block modest, popular gun control measures at every turn. The security of the minority’s self-ascribed right to make the rules has become their platform’s major plank, because unpopular rules don’t stand a chance without it. Float a rule that threatens their grip on power, no matter how popular, and it’s “my AR is waiting for you, Robert Francis.”

They’ll tell you their thinly veiled threats are really about defending their constitutional rights. Don’t believe it. The conservative Supreme Court majority’s 2008 decision in District of Columbia v. Heller found an individual right to own guns for self-protection, but no civilian needs a weapon capable of shooting 26 people in 32 seconds to ward off burglars. The Second Amendment doesn’t grant the right to own one any more than it grants the right to own a surface-to-air missile. 

They’ll tell you their foreboding “predictions” of lethal resistance are really about preserving the means to protect the republic against an overweening, rights-stomping state. Don’t believe that, either. It’s really about the imagined peril of a multicultural majority running the show. Many countries that do more to protect their citizens against gun violence are more, not less, free than we are. According to the libertarian Cato Institute, 16 countries enjoy a higher level of overall freedom than the United States, and most of them ban or severely restrict ownership of assault weapons. The freedom to have your head blown off in an Applebee’s, to flee in terror from the bang of a backfiring engine, might not be freedom at all.

I’m not too proud to admit that in my misspent libertarian youth, I embraced the idea that a well-armed populace is a bulwark against tyranny. I imagined us a vast Switzerland, hived with rifles to defend our inviolable rights against … Michael Dukakis? What I slowly came to see is that freedom is inseparable from political disagreement and that holding to a trove of weapons as your last line of defense in a losing debate makes normal ideological opposition look like nascent tyranny and readies you to suppress it.

So it’s no surprise that the most authoritarian American president in living memory, elected by a paltry minority, is not threatened in the least by citizen militias bristling with military firepower. He knows they’re on his side.

Democrats don’t want to grind the rights of Republicans underfoot. They want to feel safe and think it should be harder for unhinged lunatics to turn Walmarts into abattoirs. But when minority-rule radicals hear determined talk of mandatory assault rifle buybacks, they start to feel surrounded. They hear the hammers clicking back, imagine themselves in the majority’s cross hairs. 

That’s why they’re unmoved by the mounting heap of slaughtered innocents, by schoolkids missing recess to rehearse being hunted. It’s a sacrifice they’re willing to let other Americans make, because they think democracy’s coming for their power, and they’re right.