According to a Rasmussen poll, 65 percent of Americans believe that the purpose of the Second Amendment is to protect the nation from tyranny.
Some of those Americans are on the Supreme Court. In their landmark 2008 case, District of Columbia v. Heller, the Court argued that the Framers intended the Second Amendment to serve as an ultimate “safeguard against tyranny.” Two years later, the Court quoted Justice Joseph Story, who thought the Second Amendment would “enable the people to resist and triumph” against a usurper.
Rather than focus on the historical purpose or intent behind the Second Amendment, I would like to ask a different question. Does the widespread legal availability of guns actually help prevent tyranny?
According to gun enthusiasts, Americans need their guns to defend the Constitution. If any elected official or military commander attempted to rule unlawfully, through some sort of coup d’état, they would have to face millions of armed and outraged citizens. Without guns, America would stand vulnerable to tyranny.
This argument cannot be dismissed — or ignored. Gun-control advocates must admit that the dangers of dictatorship, however slight, could outweigh all the tragic costs of gun-related violence and accidents put together. Preserving our Constitution is a powerful and evocative trump card.
So, those who seek tougher gun control laws must explain exactly why the “guns prevent tyranny” claim is hollow.
The United States has combined high gun ownership with long-term democratic stability, but that does not mean that guns promote tranquility. In Britain, the right to bear arms has long been abolished. Since the nineteenth century, Parliament has imposed stricter and stricter gun controls, and today, private gun ownership is rare. In all this time, nothing would indicate that unarmed Britons have come any closer to a coup d’état or tyranny than heavily-armed Americans. (In fact, the opposite is true, especially regarding the near-misses during the Civil War and Reconstruction periods.) Sweden, with many fewer guns per capita than the United States, has been similarly tyrant-free for over 200 years. Firearms are even scarcer in Japan and the Netherlands. Are we to believe that, because these nations are not awash in guns, they are actually facing dangers of dictatorship? Meanwhile, plenty of countries without effective gun controls — like Yemen, Angola, and Sierra Leone — experience actual coups and tyrannies.
In fact, armaments help groups like gangs, drug cartels, cults, and fringe groups detach themselves from the mainstream, and establish alternative bases for loyalty and security — in effect, “mini-states” at war with the official government. We see this phenomenon among Mafia families, Mexican drug cartels, and Colombian guerrillas, among many others. The basic process looks like this. A ringleader organizes a well-armed clique for criminal enterprises. By using bribery and intimidation to recruit policemen, officials, and judges into his private army, the boss establishes a shadowy rule over certain neighborhoods and regions. His henchmen and stooges owe loyalty to him personally, rather than to the nation, its laws, or institutions.
Criminal mini-states do not promote constitutional order. In fact, they provide pools of loyal fighters, permanently estranged from mainstream institutions — exactly what one needs to orchestrate a coup d’état. The coca-running FARC rebels, for example, have been attempting to overthrow Colombian democracy for decades. In Italy, the only coup attempt since World War II came one night in 1970, when neo-fascist militants, reportedly with Mafia support, began moving against government buildings in Rome — before mysteriously calling off the golpe. The ultimate flowering of criminal mini-states can be found in Somalia, where warlords have waged endless coups.
The reason our nation is secure from tyranny has nothing to do with the proliferation of civilian guns. As I explained earlier this week and in my new book, Vanishing Coup, we enjoy a stable democracy because we live under the rule of law, enforced by impartial and independent police, prosecutors, and judges. By insisting on legality and procedure at every level of our military and civilian bureaucracies, we make it impossible to practice the nepotism and corruption required to build personal-loyalty cabals.
Without high-level cabals, plotting a coup d’état becomes inordinately difficult. When “big men” have loyal followers, plausible conspiracies form relatively easily, as each boss brings his own people on board. But in the absence of corrupt cliques, a conspiracy must grow individual by individual, with each new recruit posing a substantial danger of betrayal. Under these circumstances, coup plotting becomes absurdly perilous, and the notion of a coup d’étateffectively disappears from the corridors of power. This is why all the nations to achieve long-term stability — including Britain, the United States, Sweden, Switzerland, Canada, the Netherlands, Japan, and others — enjoy strong rule-of-law institutions and low corruption. (For maps of the “coup-free zone” over the past century, see yesterday’s post; for the extended map series, click here.)
Gun proliferation poses no immediate threat to American democracy, but it moves the ball in the wrong direction. Guns help criminal mini-states form, expand, and warp the operation of law. A river of assault rifles, for example, has been flowing south and bolstering the power of Mexican drug cartels. Conceivably, the cartels could grow into multinational organizations, and begin corrupting American policemen and judges on a large scale. What happens to our “rule of law” then?
Mexican cartels intimidate law enforcement by displaying superior firepower. One of their favorite tactics is to send commando teams, armed with AK-47s and the like, to spray individual cops and entire police stations with thousands of bullets at a time. Surviving policemen get the message about who is really “in charge,” which certainly affects their calculations of personal danger, and makes them more susceptible to bribes. Without these military-grade weapons — many of which are being purchased legally within the United States — the cartels would be in a far weaker position vis-à-vis official Mexican institutions.
The next couple of centuries will undoubtedly present opportunities for criminal organizations to gain ascendancy in this nation and others. These opportunities may include economic depressions, viral pandemics, and nuclear terrorism. Amidst disorders of any kind, our military and police forces must retain decisive advantages in terms of organization and firepower in order to prevent the rise of criminal mini-states.
Thus, new gun regulations are necessary for many reasons, including the long-term preservation of our Constitution. The widespread availability of high-powered military-grade weaponry does not keep us secure from tyranny — in fact, it increases the probability that one day, our great-grandchildren will live under thuggish warlords and tyrants.