why guns won’t protect you from dictators

January 13, 2013

machine gun

In the wake of the tragic school shooting Connecticut, there’s been an attempt at some public dialog about gun control, as there usually is after every mass shooting. Well, dialog is probably too strong of a word. It’s really more like an exchange of hyperventilating memes in which we’re bombarded by one side insisting that any attempt to slow down purchases of powerful weapons must be an effort by the government to enslave them, complete with enough Godwins to qualify the objections as hysterical, while the other insists that the "gun culture" is what makes people who aren’t exactly all that mentally stable to begin with kill strangers instead of seeking help. Of course we have plenty of reasonable people on both sides of the fence willing to compromise, but as the current custom dictates only the loudest and the most obnoxious tend to get noticed since they are generally a very noisy and persistent crowd who won’t let you overlook them.

Personally, I have no problem with people owning guns or using them for protection. If someone breaks into your house and comes at you with a weapon, by all means, warn and fire at will. But I’d also like to see background checks and mandatory training for new gun owners, not just brief safety classes where obvious things are briefly covered as everyone dozes off. There’s should not be any issues with keeping track of what guns are being sold and the paranoia that the state will come and seize your guns, therefore you need a secret stash of high powered weaponry to defend yourself from an uppity government is absurd. If the government really wants your guns, it has everything from stealth bombers to tanks and highly trained commando units on call, and while we can invoke Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq until the cows come home, comparing these asymmetric conflicts to an extremely well armed dictatorship on a massive purge is just wrong.

The wonks at Foreign Policy crunched the numbers specifically to addess this issue and found absolutely no correlation between gun ownership and freedom or democracy. In the top eleven countries in the world by gun ownership there are peaceful quasi-socialist utopias like Finland, Switzerland, and Sweden. But there are also authoritarian states like Saudi Arabia and Iraq, the latter being very gun saturated both before and after Saddam. Even more interesting, the very first Arab nation to topple its authoritarian ruler during the Arab spring, Tunisia, is virtually gun- free at one weapon per 1,000 people. Egypt was also no better armed and the large number of Libyan gun owners didn’t pose much of a threat to Qaddafi for decades. And when they did, an air campaign by NATO was crucial for their victory. Likewise, the decently armed Syrians are in what can only be described as a stalemate with Assad who, to put it mildly, doesn’t have what a member state of NATO would call advanced weapons. So guns don’t mean freedom.

In the end, it all comes down to the people and the history of the country. Nations used to very strong authoritarians and violent overthrows when those in power don’t share well won’t think to use their guns in a mass uprising without something very exceptional driving them to do it. In the United States, where freedom, independence, and debate are prized, people are willing to give administrations that would exceed their authority hell, even if it’s just verbal. Plenty of Americans even think that the Second Amendment was written to give citizens the authority to overthrow an overly powerful government if they so desire. From a historical perspective, this view seems very improbable since the verbiage focuses on militias and the security of the state, not freedom from future tyrants. The founding fathers needed militias to boost their armies in case on an invasion to swarm and peck away at enemies. Considering that they limited the right to vote to white, land owning males just like them, created the electoral college to overrule popular vote if they saw fit, and Washington himself rode with an army regiment to suppress an armed rebellion, it’s unlikely that they were such devoted libertarians that they were fine with armed uprisings.

Furthermore, it’s not ridiculous to think that if you want to own something designed specifically to injure and hurt others, you should have a background check and some training before you can buy it. If anything, the training will help in a situation where it should actually be used, although it’s probably best to leave things like trying to stop a crime in progress to the experts. The same wonks at FP who analyzed worldwide gun data also note that in the overwhelming majority of all cases where guns effectively stopped public shootings, the people who wielded the guns were highly trained professionals. This is why I’m always puzzled when an ardent gun right supporter boosts the case for anyone to have any gun he or she wants with an argument that features the effective use or possession of guns by soldiers, SWAT members, and police officers who spend months training and years in the field, trained to stop crimes or shoot the right targets through a rain of gunfire. That’s basically their job. Comparing them on an average citizen is like trying to compare a veteran stunt driver to someone who just got his or her license.

Average people can’t fight to shoot well enough in an actual confrontation without training and those who are convinced they’ll turn into a Navy SEAL or and Army Ranger in a real crisis are a menace to themselves and everyone around them. They can absolutely defend themselves in a controlled environment like their homes, or push away a weaker or incompetent attacker in they get jumped in a dark alley, but faced with someone much better armed or with experience, they need skills to escape alive or accurately return fire. There’s a reason why in martial arts classes you do the same drills over and over again, day in, day out even as you learn new moves. And soldiers in basic training and commandos in advanced programs don’t simulate various combat scenarios on a constant basis just because they have nothing better to do. To argue that their constantly honed ability to handle weapons and disarm opponents means that anyone needs to be able to buy any weapon no questions asked makes no logical sense.

Owning a gun doesn’t make you a superhero or keep sinister government forces at bay. If you want to save lives, sign up for martial arts and marksmanship classes, then apply to your police department. If you want to defend the government from turning into a dictatorship, vote for the politicians who will keep the party in power in check, or become active in politics yourself. If you want to defend yourself or hunt, no one should stop you as long as your background check isn’t going to feature a string or armed robberies across the country and you’re willing to take a few hours to learn how to properly use your weapon if you’ve never shot guns before. But if you are convinced that guns will give you superpowers and mean you can intervene in very dangerous situations, or that the government should fear your guns if they choose to pass laws with which you don’t personally agree, I would suggest doing a little self-reflection. You might be writing lots of verbal checks that your self-defense skills won’t be able to cash when real danger strikes. A whole lot of data gathered around the world for many years says so.

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