Small Arms and America’s “First Freedom”
By Taylor Marvin
The recent massacre in Connecticut has once again opened America’s gun laws to public debate, to the chagrin of gun rights advocates. While the NRA and other defenders of gun rights have many arguments in favor of relatively unrestricted access to firearms, one particularly noxious reasoning is that the American citizenry must be well-armed as a defense against government tyranny.
This implicit justification for the 2nd amendment is widespread. In a recent post at Democracy in America, author J.F. recalled Charlton Heston’s famous statement that the second amendment is America’s “first freedom” that guarantees all others, through the credible threat of violence. In a Remington print ad highlighted by Mother Jones, the company warns politicians that the owners of it’s over 5,000,000 bolt action rifles sold constitute “the world’s largest army”. Most dramatically, gun rights advocates frequently attribute the brutal extent of the Holocaust to the Nazi disarmament of European Jews, an argument recently demolished by Michael Moynihan.
At the judicial level, the Supreme Court concluded in District of Columbia v. Heller that in the original 18th century context the right to “bear arms” was “unambiguously used to refer to the carrying of weapons outside of an organized militia,” and the right to own firearms is not dependent on membership in the modern understanding of a militia. Later in the opinion, this right is explicitly tied to the ability to overthrow a tyrannical government: “There are many reasons why the militia was thought to be ‘necessary to the security of a free state’… When the able-bodied men of a nation are trained in arms and organized, they are better able to resist tyranny.”
Following this reasoning, civilian access to firearms prevents the state from holding a monopoly on violence, ensuring a politically free society. This is an understandable argument — after all, the Revolutionary War was fought with civilian muzzle-loading muskets broadly indistinguishable from the military small arms of the time. But as a dictate of public policy this argument fails on two levels: armed mass rebellions are an uncommon source of regime change, and individual small arms alone are not an effective weapon of modern war. This is by no means an original argument on my part, but bear with me.
The notion that a violent, extralegal change in the any government will come in the form of a mass rebellion where civilian arms play any role is unlikely. Coups are far more likely to result in a successful regime change: in the 1950-2010 period regional coup success rates ranged from 33 to 55 percent. A civil war is particularly unlikely in the United States. America is a very rich country, and civil wars are uncommon in prosperous societies. This logic is governed by the twin”greed and grievance” motivations for violent challenges to state authority — citizens of rich countries are, on average, prosperous enough that greed is not sufficient motivation to motivate violent action, and the prosperity of existing society reduces perceived grievances. As fighting a civil war requires mobilizing comparatively large social and military resources in opposition to the state, the prosperity and durable representative structure of US government makes another unlikely.
The United States is unlikely to repeat a civil war for other, non-economic reasons, as well. As James Fearson notes, “the most common form of civil war in the post-World War II period has been a stalemated guerrilla war conﬁned to a rural periphery of a low-income, post-colonial state.” Obviously, the United States does not fit this criteria. It’s also worthwhile to remember that the United States has already fought a civil war, one where an organized state military, rather than irregular civilians, was the instrument of secessionist military force.
More importantly, arguing that a well-armed citizenry is a credible threat to state power ignores the realities of modern warfare. Irregular forces armed with small arms and lacking external backing are unlikely to be an effective counter to state power. Michael Moynihan ably notes this capability differential in the context of the Holocaust, writing that even if European Jews were heavily armed “it is optimistic to think that revolt from poorly armed, poorly trained, and undermanned citizens against the mighty German military would have substantially altered the fate of German or Eastern European Jews.” This unfortunate logic held in the case of Western European Resistance fighters as well, who were unable to force the German occupiers out despite some degree of external backing. Worldwide, irregulars restricted to only small arms are unlikely to successfully oppose a capable modern military.
No matter what gun control legislation the US adopts, military weapons like squad machine guns, rocket launchers, grenades, and armored military vehicles will always be illegal. This distinction between civilian and military weapons was less pronounced during the Revolutionary War — the benchmark for gun rights advocates’ “resisting tyranny” precedent — when civilian and military personal arms were largely identical. It is doubtful that any modern-day irregular insurgency could mount an effective resistance to the US military without these weapons. Imagining otherwise is a fantasy. District of Columbia v. Heller notes this implausibility:
“It may well be true today that a militia, to be as effective as militias in the 18th century, would require sophisticated arms that are highly unusual in society at large. Indeed, it may be true that no amount of small arms could be useful against modern-day bombers and tanks. But the fact that modern developments have limited the degree of fit between the prefatory clause and the protected right cannot change our interpretation of the right.”
This may be true for a judicial standpoint. But it does not make the argument at hand — that civilian firearms are a bulwark against tyranny — less silly.
The insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan provide an interesting test case. In both conflicts, attacks against coalition forces by IEDs and other explosive devices gradually replaced small arms fire as insurgents’ weapon of choice over the course of the conflict. Insurgents also invested considerable energy in developing more potent IEDs, and in defeating countermeasures. This suggest that even Iraqi and Afghan insurgents, which had ready access to military firearms including squad support weapons, found asymmetrical, indirect attacks with IEDs to be a more effective strategy than small arms fire. Small arms alone are not sufficient to wage modern irregular war, and the prospect of middle-aged men armed with civilian small arms facing a modern military is not an effective political deterrence.
Of course, it is possible that gun rights advocates only mean that a well-armed citizenry can deter political tyranny by retaining a credible threat to assassinate errant leaders, rather than fight a guerilla war. It is certainly true that American presidents face a real threat of assassination — distressingly, four presidents have been murdered in office. But there is little evidence that the fear of assassination in any way influences American political leaders, and in the modern era killing a well-guarded president is a difficult task. Anyway, this is a meaningless debate — if gun rights advocates do think assassination capability is a valid reason to oppose gun control, they are rightly afraid to voice this reasoning in the public sphere.