Sunday, 12 August 2012

Guns Don't, People Do.

     There are all sorts of arguments for and against legal restrictions on gun ownership, but one of the more disturbing arguments I hear from time to time is the one that certain Americans raise: that an armed populace is the best defence against a tyrannical government.

     Now, I don't mean to reject that entirely, because certainly there have been many tyrannical governments overthrown by force of arms throughout history. And there are instances where armed citizenry have made it difficult or even impossible for foreign powers to invade and occupy a country. A realist must recognize that there is a role for weapons and violence in this world, if only because others give them a role. I certainly understand the sentiment (misattributed to Thomas Jefferson) that it is better for government to fear the people than for people to fear the government, though I disagree very much: it is fearful governments that are the most dangerous to their people. (More on that in a later post, I expect; I've been meditating again on the nature of fear quite a bit since this Officer Wawra story broke.)

     But this whole approach to combatting government tyranny is doomed, because it buys into Mao's famous dictum that political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, and that view of power is at the core of tyranny. One can imagine (or at least fantasize about) a benevolent tyranny where those with a monopoly on lethal force wield it with benign restraint and only for our own good, but tyranny is tyranny is tyranny.

     No, the answer to tyranny is not force. The truly revolutionary development that has lead to the spread of liberty was not the idea of arming the populace. There was nothing at all new about that; weapons have existed in private hands far longer than we've even had governments. The really important change has been the growth of the rule of law, the idea that people have rights and that disputes should be settled according to generally accepted universal principles rather than the personal preferences of any individual.
     This is much more than simply an idea that people hear about; there's probably no society without at least the idea of rules. What matters for the rule of law to take root is for enough people to genuinely embrace the concept, and to agree to abide by rules even when it is not in their immediate interest to do so. And of particular importance is that the people with the guns firmly adhere to this principle. That's why the militaries of developed countries are ultimately under lawful civilian control, and have such strict disciplinary systems in place.

     It's a subtle idea, and while it's well-established here, its grip is always a bit tenuous. Sometimes it's counterintuitive, as when we extend legal protections and due process to the nastiest of criminals. Sometimes it's just inconvenient, like when we stop for a red light at 3:00 a.m. and there's no one else on the road. But the fact that most of us usually obey the law for no other reason than that it is the law is the core of what protects us against tyranny. A tyrant can only become a tyrant if people obey him, and in a rule-of-law society, unlawful commands tend not to be obeyed.

     So the thing to do is to be ever vigilant against attempts to shape the law to the purposes of the tyrant. That means engaging in the political process, arguing and advocating and talking and listening, and steadfastly rejecting coercion. In other words, guns don't protect us against tyranny; people protect us against tyranny.


  1. In relation to recent shootings: Yes, "real power comes from the barrel of a gun", enabling mentally ill private citizens to become tyrants in a manner that less frequently happens in less weaponized societies.

  2. That isn't power. Or rather, it's a very limited kind of power: the power to kill. Because people are afraid of death, that can be used to make them do what you want, and so we mistake that for political power, but I'm arguing that true freedom and the rule of law requires courage; we need to cultivate and keep on cultivating an attitude that coercion is illegitimate. We need to disempower violence by controlling our fear of it. It's that fear, I think, which is the big problem.