Guns have never saved us

Second Amendment defenders misread history: Armed citizens did not win our freedom and would not protect it

Michael Lind
December 17, 2012 6:05PM (UTC)

Are recurring massacres carried out by maniacs with automatic weapons the price of liberty in the United States? Is the maintenance of democratic government in America inseparable from the alleged Second Amendment right of individual citizens to amass personal arsenals of semi-automatic weapons with high-capacity magazines? In the aftermath of the latest horrific school shooting in the U.S., this is what the civic republican argument against stricter gun control boils down to: a political science theory which is either true or false, as a matter of fact.

Forget the Second Amendment. If opponents of stricter regulation of assault weapons had the courage of their convictions, they wouldn’t hide behind legalistic interpretations of the Second Amendment to the federal constitution. They would argue that private ownership of small arsenals of assault weapons would be a good thing, even if it weren’t allegedly protected by the constitution. Indeed, if they were consistent, they would argue that private ownership of assault weapons should be compulsory among citizens, as a defense against government tyranny — not only in the U.S. but in every democracy in the world.


So forget about the constitutional and legal argument. And while we are at it, forget about the argument from rural sportsmen, too. Nobody uses a machine gun on a deer or a dove or a duck.

The argument, then, is a policy argument. And the wisdom of the policy depends on the truth or falsity of a political science proposition: unless a majority or a large minority of the citizenry own firearms in general, and assault weapons in particular, the replacement of democracy by tyranny is likely if not inevitable — not only in the U.S. but in any country.

This is, as I have said, a political science theory, a theory about a precondition for stable liberal democracy. The evidence for any political science theory takes two forms: comparative politics and history. What does the evidence say about the theory that liberty and democracy depend on easy access to assault weapons by citizens?


The evidence from comparative politics does not support the thesis that countries with widespread private gun ownership are less free or more inclined than dictatorship than the U.S. Many democratic nations of western Europe and east Asia have more civil liberties protections for their citizens than the U.S., and few have political systems as corrupted by gerrymandering and big money as the U.S. (Italy is a prominent exception). No other advanced industrial democracy is in imminent danger of becoming a tyranny because of gun control regulations and the lack of an American-style gun culture among Brits or Swedes or Japanese.

What does history tell us? To listen to the right-wing extremists who oppose rational gun controls, even those imposed on assault weapons, American political liberty has been won and preserved by armed citizens.

Wrong. If American independence had depended on citizen-soldiers with muskets, Queen Elizabeth would be our head of state today. George Washington’s army won the War of Independence with the aid of imported French weapons and supplies and money and French soldiers fighting on American soil. And his best soldiers tended to be well-trained regulars, many of them immigrant mercenaries who signed up for pay and land.  The native farmers tended to drop out of the Continental Line to return to their farms.


The state militias performed poorly in subsequent American wars, as well. In the Mexican War, undisciplined militias antagonized the Mexican population so much, by rape, plunder and murder, that General Winfield Scott sent them home. Scott’s small but disciplined regular forces not only won the war but also the support of much of the Mexican public during the occupation.

Neither side in the Civil War depended solely on state militias. Both the U.S. and Confederate governments resorted to a draft. And the outcome of the war was determined by the greater industrial and military might of the North. The South had lots of bellicose farm boys skilled with guns. A lot of good it did for the Lost Cause. In the 20th century, the state militias were finally made useful by being federalized, in the form of the National Guard.


One last point — the two greatest expansions of personal liberty in American history, the abolition of slavery and desegregation, were enforced by the armed forces, over the objections of state governments and in the face of violence by certain armed citizens fond of gray uniforms or white hoods.

So much for American history. The history of other countries does not supply any support for the idea that tyrannies of the kind familiar in the 20th and 21st centuries can be overthrown by armed citizens. Most of the tyrannies that have given way to democracies have either been conquered by foreign enemies (Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan), gradually reformed from above (the Soviet Union) or have been overthrown by military coups (communist Romania).

The Arab Spring is no exception to the rule. Crowds in the streets, armed or otherwise, can be an element of a revolution. But today as in the past, a nation’s armed forces tend to be the “swing vote.” Sometimes, as in Tiananmen Square, they side with the regime. But at other times, nonviolent protests are more effective than violent anarchy in persuading the local military to back dissidents. Boris Yeltsin won over the Soviet military by standing on a tank in front of peaceful demonstrators. He didn’t climb the tank to spray the Red Army with a machine gun in each hand, like a character in a Hollywood action flick or a splatterpunk video game.


Even the record of insurgents in driving out foreign occupiers, like the U.S. in  Iraq and Afghanistan and the Israelis in Lebanon, is less impressive than it seems.  As the political scientist Azar Gat notes, counterinsurgencies tend to work best when the occupying regime is a democracy, whose voters can be horrified and demoralized by the costs to both sides of suppressing the uprising. Tyrants don’t have to worry about public opinion. For that reason, insurgencies against totalitarian regimes tend to be short-lived and quickly suppressed by genocidal slaughter or wholesale deportation of populations.

Think about that political science finding very carefully. Ordinary citizens armed with assault weapons or other arms useful in combat have the least chance of success in the very scenario that is invoked to justify their ownership — the remote prospect of a totalitarian tyranny in America.

As long as we are writing science fiction, in the event that a Hitler, Stalin or Mao seized control in Washington, D.C., this American tyrant would worry far more about being murdered by the praetorian guard or overthrown by the military than about the near-impossibility of defeat of the U.S. armed forces by ordinary armed citizens, particularly the kind of pathetic right-wing militia members who would have trouble taking over a trailer park. As in Russia, Egypt and elsewhere, nonviolent protests designed to persuade the soldiers to join the dissidents, rather than kill their own relatives and neighbors, would be far more effective in promoting regime change than a policy of allowing ordinary citizens, including mentally ill loners, to amass assault weapons in their houses and apartments.


I’ve gone into detail, to make a point. The claim that there is a link between individual ownership of assault weapons and political liberty, in the U.S. or anywhere, is not a legal claim. It is not a claim about values. It is a claim about fact. It is a political science theory. And as a political science theory it is an error — an error with fatal consequences for many American citizens who might be alive today, but for this mistaken idea.

Michael Lind

Michael Lind is the author of more a dozen books of nonfiction, fiction and poetry. He is a frequent contributor to The New York Times, Politico, The Financial Times, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, Salon, and The International Economy. He has taught at Harvard and Johns Hopkins and has been an editor or staff writer for The New Yorker, Harper’s, The New Republic, and The National Interest.

MORE FROM Michael Lind

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Adam Lanza Editor's Picks Gun Control Second Amendment

Fearless journalism
in your inbox every day

Sign up for our free newsletter

• • •