Another sickening mass shooting, and another dispiriting round of debates about the place of guns in American life. And, just as many of the gun-control measures proposed are not germane to the events people wish to see stopped, neither are many of the arguments about gun rights generally. Charles Cooke has taken on Bret Stephens. Rich Lowry has also examined the “passionate non sequiturs.” And, I suppose it falls to me to take on the assertion, made in the New York Times by Michael Schermer, that guns in the hands of citizens aren’t a bulwark against tyranny.
But, of course, they are.
Alert readers (and listeners) will know that on a philosophical level, I’m a squish on the gun stuff. I find it embarrassing that the United States is “exceptional” in the amount of violence its people inflict on one another, and themselves, with handguns. And I’m skeptical about the utility of an unqualified right to acquire weapons of such lethality. My colleague Kevin Williamson says that the right to bear arms makes us citizens and not subjects. And I agree, up to a point. I just wouldn’t assume that any adult U.S. national is a good citizen. In an ideal world, a man like Stephen Paddock, who spent his time and money getting perks at Vegas casinos would be disqualified from this burden of citizenship, on account of his manifestly dissolute and aimless life.
To call him a citizen is to reduce the term to a legal fiction, a kind of wish about what Americans should be, rather than a recognition of what we are. A man who turns large sums of his worldly wealth over to the algorithmic swings of video poker, in order to get comps, is a man who remains subject to his own appetites, and vulnerable to some tough creditors. The ornaments of a free man do not suit him.
But let’s put my useless doubts to one side.
Gun-rights advocates also make the grandiose claim that gun ownership is a deterrent against tyrannical governments. Indeed, the wording of the Second Amendment makes this point explicitly: “A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” That may have made sense in the 1770s, when breech-loading flintlock muskets were the primary weapons tyrants used to conquer other peoples and subdue their own citizens who could, in turn, equalize the power equation by arming themselves with equivalent firepower. But that is no longer true.
If you think stock piling firearms from the local Guns and Guitars store, where the Las Vegas shooter purchased some of his many weapons, and dressing up in camouflage and body armor is going to protect you from an American military capable of delivering tanks and armored vehicles full of Navy SEALs to your door, you’re delusional.
Schermer invokes the massacres at Ruby Ridge and at Waco, Texas, as further evidence that guns are not sufficient to protect you from a determined government. He offers instead for protection the rule of law, and a good lawyer to defend you. He concludes that these are far superior defenses against the government than guns.
The concluding note is obviously correct. Everyone here much prefers to have a functioning civil society, and a government that honors our God-given rights. But, Schermer has avoided the real argument. The “defense against tyranny” claim does not hold that any one individual, or a tiny group, can defend any claim against the government with the force of arms. And, of course, equal firepower was never the issue. Even in the 1770s, an American government could raise a larger and better-outfitted force than what was present at Ruby Ridge or Waco Texas. Civil society and good lawyers are all the defense you need against a non-tyrannical government. But a tyranny, an invader, or a pretender-government are more effectively resisted with guns.
Sometimes people put Schermer’s argument more baldly. They ask something like this: “Do you really think Bubba in camo gear hiding in the forest is going to take on the U.S. military? The U.S. military has nuclear weapons!”
Who exactly do you think has stymied the U.S. in Afghanistan for 16 years? The Taliban is made up of Afghan Bubbas. The Taliban doesn’t need to defeat nuclear weapons, though they are humiliating a nuclear power for the second time in history. They use a mix of Kalashnikovs and WWII-era bolt-action rifles. Determined insurgencies are really difficult to fight, even if they are only armed with Enfield rifles and you can target them with a TOW missiles system that can spot a cat in the dark from two miles away. In Iraq, expensive tanks were destroyed with simple improvised explosives.
If the U.S. government (and the American people behind them) doesn’t want to use nuclear weapons on foreign fundamentalists in Afghanistan, why does anyone presume they’d use them against Americans in Idaho?
It is not just our fecklessness. All great powers take into account the moral and manpower costs of implementing their rules and laws on a people. And an armed citizenry, especially if they seem to have a just cause to rally around, will dramatically raise the price of ruling them. The British Empire controlled one quarter of the world’s territory and ruled one quarter of the earth’s population in 1922. In that very year, they were forced to make an effective exit from the main part of their oldest colony, Ireland. Why? Because a determined group of Irish men with guns made the country ungovernable. The British technically could have deployed their entire navy, blockading the restive island, and starving any rebellion into submission. But they were unwilling to pay the moral price, or the price in blood. It was precisely this foreseeable event that had caused the British to ban Irish Catholics from possessing firearms hundreds of years earlier.
And just as in the 1770s or the 1920s, governments in similar positions today or in the future would have a difficult time maintaining military morale while trying to impose rule on a people who resist it manfully.
You can acknowledge this and still deplore America’s gun violence, as I do. You can wish and even work for an American future where there are fewer weapons in untrained and unsteady American hands. And, we all should wish to maintain a law-governed and orderly society that doesn’t inspire thousands or millions of Americans to resist its government in an insurgency. But in the meantime, don’t do violence to history itself. With just the moral support of the society they are living in, and a number of rifles, a small group of men can make it impossible for tyrants to rule.