“No free man shall ever be debarred the use of arms. The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government. Also, I only ever wrote the first line of that; someone else made up the rest. Seriously, I didn’t say half the shit people quote me for on the Internet.” – Thomas Jefferson
When it comes to gun ownership, there’s no shortage of arguments to be made for or against. I think some pro-ownership arguments are entirely valid, and I’d like to get more into those later. But the one up there, about guns being the people’s defense against tyranny, is heavily flawed (at least in modern America), for what I’d say are five main reasons.
One, obviously, no homegrown militia can go against the U.S. military’s tanks, planes, and drones toe-to-toe. Not many people have suggested they should, of course, so moving on.
Two, someone might respond to that by arguing the military would side with the people, in which case I’d point out that (1) in that case, it’d be the defecting military’s weapons that make the difference, not the militia’s, and (2) a “tyranny” that couldn’t even control its own military would be a lame tyranny in the first place.
Three, someone might say, “Well, if we did have to fight the military, we wouldn’t go toe-to-toe; we’d fight guerilla style, cut their supplies, and hit them where they’re weak, like they do in Afghanistan, or like the French and the Polish did with the Nazis.” Several issues with that:
– The U.S. military has had over ten years’ experience fighting insurgencies now, and while its methods aren’t flawless, it’s certainly learned to adapt, and killed thousands upon thousands of insurgents in the process (along with however many unlucky civilians caught in the crossfire).
– Those insurgencies were in wars of choice, where the military always had the option to withdraw. In a place like Somalia, the military can be demoralized into leaving if it loses only a handful of men; Clinton pulled out of Somalia after a total of 18 U.S. fatalities (though, by most sources, our troops left a trail of over 1,000 dead enemy combatants, for a kill ratio of over 50 to 1). In France and Poland, resistance fighters made it their goal not to defeat the Nazis themselves — they knew that would be impossible on their own — but to frustrate the Nazi war effort, tying up their resources, specifically so that their much bigger foreign allies, the kind an American militia wouldn’t have (and wouldn’t want), could then swoop in and save the day. Back in our own Revolution, most of the Redcoats were fighting thousands of miles from home. When a sufficiently demoralized occupying force has the option to leave, it takes that option.
But there’s a world of difference between that and fighting to the death on homeland soil.
No one can say for sure exactly what would happen if a big enough insurgency targeted the U.S. military within U.S. borders. But here’s a prediction: Nothing good. Part of the reason the military had trouble in Iraq, and continues having trouble in Afghanistan, is because the rules of engagement require shooting around civilians whenever possible. If certain people got their wish, and enough of the general public became convinced to rise up, we’d see massacre after massacre long before anyone ever managed to “win.” That’s not something anyone should wish on our own country.
– Following from that, if a tyrannical government really, really wanted to go medieval on our country, it could, and not just militarily. The government controls enough of our nation’s infrastructure that it could easily cut off the power, refrigeration, heat, and communications we all take for granted. An insurgency would not stay popular for long under those conditions (you think Congress’ approval took a hit when Washington shut down?), and way too many people would die needlessly of exposure and starvation alone. (Remember the old Libertarian saying: “A government big enough to give you everything you want is big enough to take away everything you have.” Whether we should’ve let it get that big is another question, but that’s what we’ve got right now.)
– The fact that our government *hasn’t* done any of that, even though it has the power, is worth considering.
– Anyone whose plan is to fight like a terrorist is going to have a hard time making friends among the public. Part of the reason our military had some success in Iraq was because the Iraqi people came to hate the insurgents just as much as the soldiers did, and for good reason.
Now, the fourth main point is that someone might say, “Well, it’s the militia’s Constitutional duty to defeat domestic enemies, regardless of the cost!” Except it’s not. The Constitution’s Article I, Section 8, explicitly gives Congress the power “To provide for calling forth the Militia to execute the Laws of the Union, suppress Insurrections and repel Invasions” — that’s suppress insurrections, not cause them. A little further down, Article 3, Section 3 defines waging war on the United States as treason.
Hell, Washington himself had to put down an insurrection, called the Whiskey Rebellion, when his government levied a tax on whiskey. (Apparently, some people misheard “No taxation without representation” as “No taxation ever.”)
We all want to be heroes, standing up for the country we love. As appealing as it can be to imagine oneself as a valiant freedom fighter, roaring across the battlefield in defense of liberty while our forefathers smile down, it’s only a fantasy. And that brings us to point number five: We shouldn’t fall back on fantasy when we’re making real-life decisions.
The idea of this tyrannical, Hitleresque government stomping so hard on everyone that we have to take up arms — too many people conflate that idea with our own reality. Some people want to believe in that tyranny, because they want so badly to cast themselves as the heroes, so they do all they can to validate that belief. Pockets of the Internet have grown into doomsday cults, preparing for the national apocalypse they’ve dreamed of all these years — and if it doesn’t happen, someone might want it so badly that they try to make it happen.
What to do about it? That’s a topic for another time.