Gun Control in America: Can Well Armed Citizens Overthrow the Govt?
February 24, 2018 12:46 PM   Subscribe

I've been reading news about the recent school shooting and the increase in activism for more restrictive gun control laws. I'm squarely on the side of more gun control laws, but want to know more about the argument the opposition is making.

Proponents of gun control laws say they would decrease mass shootings. Opponents point towards the second amendment that allows citizens to own guns, and that a gun owning population is necessary if citizens want to overthrow a tyrannical government.

To what extent is that a true argument these days? Would gun owning citizens have any hope at overthrowing the most wealthy and well armed (in terms of military spending) country in the world? How much are guns a factor in an age where war has started to move online?

Moreover, how probable is it that a tyrannical government would emerge in the US? I assume some people think it's time to overthrow the government today, but these people are by definition acting illegally and are squelched (see Occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge for a related, but not exactly the same case) fairly quickly.

I'm curious if anyone knows any books or documentaries on this subject. Overall, I'd like to know if the argument gun control opponents are making holds up today, or is based on thinking that was much more true when the constitution was written.
posted by lalunamel to Law & Government (18 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
I don't have any statistics on how likely it is for an armed insurrection to overthrow the government. But, the 2nd amendment was implemented to stop exactly that from happening.
posted by runcibleshaw at 12:56 PM on February 24, 2018 [5 favorites]

There is a vast literature in political science on secessionism and rebel movements. That's probably the scholarship that is most relevant. The US has very few of the things commonly associated with civil war onset. It has high state capacity, is a democracy, is rich, doesn't have a large number of potential rebel groups, etc.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 1:17 PM on February 24, 2018

That argument was never true; the “militias” mentioned in the 2nd Amendment can, per section 8 of Article I, be called forth by Congress to “suppress Insurrections”.
posted by nicwolff at 1:54 PM on February 24, 2018 [11 favorites]

As I understand it, it's not so much about overthrowing a tyrannical government as it is about resisting and defending yourself and your property against one. But that's just as silly, and there's plenty of evidence that it doesn't work. See Ruby Ridge or Waco.

As for whether it's even possible for a tyrannical government to emerge here, it really depends on how strict your definition of tyranny is. Plenty of people, from John Wilkes Booth to Timothy McVeigh, have thought that it has already happened. Personally, I think the American system is resilient enough to withstand even a two-term Trump administration (as bad as that would be), but I like to think I'm pretty sane and even-tempered.
posted by kevinbelt at 2:11 PM on February 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

So in terms of the modern thinking on this, one of the ways people on my side tend to look at this is how the US and similar governments, historically, have fared in maintaining an occupation government when the other side is armed with small arms and improvised arms. The easiest examples of this are Iraq and Afghanistan, where while we 'won' easily against Saddam, the small-scale fighting was never fixed, and ultimately we withdrew from the one and functionally withdrew from the other. In both instances, many areas were never functionally dominated despite the full might of the US military being brought to bear.

While not a book, the NYT At War Blog has a lot of information about the smaller details of war and reading it will give a lot of context and data, including the type of weapons insurgents tended to be using, including the dates of issue (1915-present), types of ammunition, and why insurgents would choose each type for guerilla fighting.

The book Invisible Armies, by the widely acclaimed Max Boot, talks about the roots of modern guerilla warfare beginning in the American Revolution, and stretching up to Afghanistan, and will be really helpful for understanding the type of war people are talking about when they say things like "overthrowing the government". They generally mean more "making the conflict lengthy and punishing enough that the government is no longer interested in pursuing it." Guerilla warfare is incredibly grueling to overcome, especially with a civilian populace guerilla fighters could blend into.

In terms of "is a tyrannical government likely to rise in the US", you'll probably want to look at multiple forms of political analysis, because each group has their own definition of what tyranny is. For example, I think if Trump made it to two terms and somehow the Trumpublicans were able to get a veto proof majority in the House and Senate, we could see some laws that might rise to my definition of tyranny.
posted by corb at 2:41 PM on February 24, 2018 [6 favorites]

I often see statistics that only 36% of Americans own a gun, and that 3% of the population owns half the guns in the country because they stockpile. I don't think it's wrong to assume that those 3% are in rural areas, so cities would be relatively undefended. The country would be reliant on that 3% efficiently distributing their guns to the rest of the population if we were to fight the military off if it chose to attack. So... no.
posted by gatorae at 2:51 PM on February 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

So in terms of the modern thinking on this, one of the ways people on my side tend to look at this is how the US and similar governments, historically, have fared in maintaining an occupation government when the other side is armed with small arms and improvised arms. The easiest examples of this are Iraq and Afghanistan, where while we 'won' easily against Saddam, the small-scale fighting was never fixed, and ultimately we withdrew from the one and functionally withdrew from the other. In both instances, many areas were never functionally dominated despite the full might of the US military being brought to bear.

I'd disagree pretty strongly with this. The full might of the US military absolutely was NOT brought to bear after the initial conflicts in those countries. The reason we didn't "win" those wars is that we weren't willing to kill a large percentage of the populace. I'm not saying that has any virtue at all, but it's how dictators operate and maintain control. Had we done that, we would have "won."

Our goal wasn't to "win," it was to bring democracy. I'd argue that we proved that it wasn't possible to bring democracy to a population who don't want it. If we had brought the full might of the US military, we would have succeeded at "winning" and lost at democracy and in multiple other ways.

In regards to the question, one might assume that a US tyranny wouldn't kill large percentages of its own population, drawing a parallel to the insurrections in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I think the war in Rwanda and tyrannies in Nazi Germany, Syria, Saddam-era Iraq and any number of other examples make that assumption something less than safe. I also think political polarization in the US is far, far worse than is generally accepted.
posted by cnc at 2:54 PM on February 24, 2018 [3 favorites]

[Hi folks -- to keep this a workable AskMe question, we need it not to become a debate or discussion, so probably best if we can focus on recommending books/other sources that make the case, rather than making the case in this thread.]
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 2:59 PM on February 24, 2018

The Swiss like to talk about how their relaxed gun ownership laws kept the Nazis out, or at least postponed their invasion. The Swiss also have mandatory military service and an actual well-regulated militia system. And the Alps. (And Hitler may have wanted their banks more than their soil at that moment.)

The arguments NRA supporters are making are aligned with "anti-globalist" right-wing militias like the Oathkeepers and 3%'ers. These militias formed right after Obama's election, and now seem 100% aligned with Mr. Trump. Unfortunately they are sympathetic figures to a large percentage of law enforcement and the military.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 3:08 PM on February 24, 2018

Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership is a big proponent of that argument so you might find some useful information on their website. (I'm on my phone but will try to come back with more specific links later.)
posted by Jacqueline at 3:42 PM on February 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

I'm curious if anyone knows any books or documentaries on this subject. Overall, I'd like to know if the argument gun control opponents are making holds up today, or is based on thinking that was much more true when the constitution was written.

This is a classic false argument because the US population's right to vote and participate in governing processes has zero zip nothing to do with rights to own guns. Widespread participation in government, especially voting, is what protects the population's rights to self-governance under the US constitution.

I believe proof for this is every country that features democratic rule + strict gun laws. If anything, the 36% of gun owners are doing much more damage to US society's freedoms, rights, and sense of security.

The proof is in the 1996 Dickey Amendment that prevents the Centers for Disease Control from studying gun violence.

"The amendment was introduced after lobbying by the National Rifle Association in response to their perceived bias in a 1993 study by Arthur Kellermann that found that guns in the home were associated with an increased risk of homicide in the home, as well as other CDC funded studies and efforts."

I was going to take a pass on this question, but I came across another report in the news of a murder/suicide with a gun. I was reminded that law enforcement agencies are prevented from tracking gun violence like this. As usual with issues surrounding politics and government, the answer to your question is in what's being hidden or obfuscated. If the US had good statistics and studies on gun violence easily available, you would not be here asking this question.

The arguments supporting continued gun ownership would not be possible if the US state or federal government(s) were allowed to compile and publish gun violence data. Full stop.
posted by jbenben at 3:51 PM on February 24, 2018 [19 favorites]

A closer look at the At War blog that Corb mentions highlights the logical instability of the pro-gun ideology, at least when it comes to "overthrowing a tyrannical government". As it has always been, resistance movements are about asymmetric warfare. You don't fight the army by forming your own army. You don't shoot at the guys with guns with your own, inferior, guns. You fight by planting IEDs and disappearing into a crowd of civilians. In Iraq and Afghanistan the vast majority of combat wounds were from improvised explosives, not bullets. NY Times reporter CJ Chivers of the At War blog, in his book "The Gun", says that accurate small arms fire was a rarity.

But forgetting resistance, revolutions are even less dependent on firearms. Governments rule by the consent of the people. The American fantasy has always been about individualism: a single good guy standing up to all the bad guys. It's completely at odds with how power structures actually work. The Berlin wall fell because a bunch of people showed up at the wall at the same time and demanded to be let through.
posted by danny the boy at 3:56 PM on February 24, 2018 [12 favorites]

The argument that a gun-owning populace is a check on tyrannical tendencies has never been true. Or at any rate, it was never the purpose of the 2nd Amendment. Militias were raised, taking advantage of the 2nd Amendment, to suppress rebellions, not foment them. Both Shay's Rebellion and the Whiskey Rebellion were put down by militias.

The 2nd Amendment was not interpreted as guaranteeing an individual right to bear arms until 2008. And this, I think, is the cornerstone of what I like to call the Wolverines fantasy, that a band of scrappy freedom fighters with their hunting rifles will put paid to a despotic government.

When the USA was a new country, the idea of a standing national army was an unusual one—normally, monarchs would raise an army when they wanted to steal someone's land (or defend against said land theft). The concern at the time was that a standing army would put too much power in the hands of the federal government vs the state governments—remember that the Constitution was written to guarantee a weak central government, and it was only in the wake of the Civil War that it became a strong one. The 2nd Amendment was written to reassure the governments of the several states that they could counterbalance the federal government. The argument that it was written to keep slaves down is open to debate, at the very least.

I get a lot of this from this long article by Gary Wills, which is nominally a review of four books, which would give you even more to chew on. Also from this article in WaPo (which will also lead you other interesting places).
posted by adamrice at 4:21 PM on February 24, 2018 [11 favorites]

Here's a blog post by a veteran who discusses your question.

And here is an interesting interpretation of the roots of the Second Amendment.
posted by mareli at 5:27 PM on February 24, 2018 [2 favorites]

Words have meaning but that meaning can change over time and place.

We have militia units in Canada. .
They are exceptionally well regulated, because they are part of the Canadian Armed Forces

Initially formed to prevent American incursion ,they fought American regulars, American militia and American terrorists (Fenians)

As mentioned previously, they also served to put down civil insurrection.
That was a big reason for their existence.
The militias were not there to join the insurrection but to surpress it.
They were agents of the state. Always were. Still are.

Our militias may have fought on opposite sides in the Revoultionary War,
Perhaps second line troops, adjuncts to the regulars, they were still under the normal military command.

Gun nutters have put forth a false narrative.
Fifty years ago the NRA narrative was hunting , protecting livestock from perdators , not armed insurrection.

Just because they want to change the narrative doesn't mean that it is a true one.
posted by yyz at 6:14 PM on February 24, 2018 [1 favorite]

The Battle of Athens, aka the McMinn County War, was an armed insurrection against a corrupt local government in McMinn County, Tennessee in 1946. The county was in the grips of a Sheriff's department, installed by a Tennessee-wide political machine (guess the party!), which was mistreating locals, blocking black voters and using the police to fleece the locals and people passing through.

When they did the same to the returning vets, trying to grab their mustering-out money, the vets formed a political opposition, the GI Non-Partisan League, to unseat the Sheriff. When the election day came on August 1st, the county government did everything they good to disrupt certain polls, including taking 3 ballot boxes into the county jail in Athens. The vets' party was winning in the votes outside of those 3 boxes, but the Sheriff had unfettered access to those boxes, defended by over 50 deputies guarding the jail.

Figuring they'd have to face the National Guard by the next morning, a group of vets raided the National Guard Armory, armed themselves with over 60 rifles, and somewhere between "hundreds" and 2000 veterans (there were some 3000 in the county) besieged the jail with those rifles and their own weapons. After a few hours of gunfire (and a concurrent riot in Athens), the deputies surrendered, and the election was certified for the GI Non-Partisan League candidate. Within a month, the mayor and 4 aldermen resigned, and the rest of the local machine was out of office. The leader of the rebellion became the new Sheriff.

There are roughly 3000 county governments across the USA, and thousands of municipal governments, all but one under 50 state governments. The remainder is DC, which is a kind of county that's under the federal government. While it's easy to discount the view that an armed insurrection can overthrow the US Government, there are many governments in the US that have a far more substantial presence, and in some cases menace, in the day-to-day lives of their citizens. So the answer is yes, armed citizens can overthrow the government.
posted by Sunburnt at 7:02 PM on February 24, 2018 [4 favorites]

I think you're missing a lot of the argument if you only consider cases of completely overthrowing the government. Gun advocates say guns help them “stop tyranny” where tyranny is laws they don’t agree with, and they can stop particular laws without necessarily needing a complete overthrow of the government. Most cases where law enforcement (whether federal or local) confront civilians, it happens with just one or two law enforcement officers, against one or two civilians, and if the civilians have a gun, those groups are pretty evenly matched. As a law enforcer, it certainly changes the strategy when you know your opponent has an equal chance of threatening your life or other civilians in the area, and it leads to a reduction in enforcement: officers only enforcing the most egregious crimes, or having slow response time, or “working with the population” rather than throwing the book at them. There are plenty of examples of particular populations that have used guns to decrease the effectiveness of law enforcement against them, from Bundy racking up grazing fees for 20 years outside Nevada before a federal response, to locations controlled by drug gangs which keeps police away or at least responding more slowly to 911 calls. Whatever the politics behind the confrontation, there’s no question that law enforcement is more difficult against a gun owner than an unarmed civilian. They don’t need an “Oathkeepers” POTUS and an “Oathkeepers” Congress, they’ve still won if they’ve convinced whatever administration to not enforce laws against them that they find particularly unfair.

There’s a lot of these small scale “successes” for gun advocates happening around the country every day, which is a real benefit and motivation to continue owning a gun. To use the Bundy example again, he’s avoided $1 million in grazing fees (and his cattle are STILL out there), which is basically a million-dollar payoff for having a gun and implying he’s ready to use it. It’s hard to imagine the Bundy situation being the same if all he owned was a knife. So, guns are a real source of power against the government, even if the government is not completely overthrown, hence the strong fight for keeping them.

Now, there’s plenty of counter arguments focusing on whether guns are the best way to shape society which I personally am totally on board with. But, it’s hard to deny that guns are a tool which gives the user a particular kind of power, and removing guns would change the power structure in many confrontations.
posted by sdrawkcaSSAb at 6:39 AM on February 25, 2018 [2 favorites]

Gun enthusiasts love to trot out the the "Battle" of Athens to prove a point, but the reason why it's actually a great example of why American Individualism is a fantasy. 60 stolen rifles didn't overthrow tyranny. Several hundred veterans who organized themselves prevailed against 50 people. They could have been armed with breadsticks. They "won" because they organized and temporarily overwhelmed their opponent, not because their guns reversed the balance of power. (And they didn't get into the jail because of guns, they blew the doors off with dynamite, but that doesn't really fit into gun ownership narratives.)

And that's what insurrectionists everywhere know. The state will always, always have more force than you. You will never win by direct fighting. You win by destabilizing the support of the existing power structure. IEDs aren't effective because they kill soldiers, but because they erode the will of (the populace that supports) the government that sent them.

BTW, if you haven't you may want to read the "Aftermath" section of the wikipedia article on the Battle of Athens. Because oh surprise, they didn't actually win at all:
The new GI government of Athens quickly encountered challenges including the re-emergence of old party loyalties.[35] On January 4, 1947, four of the five leaders of the GI Non-Partisan League declared in an open letter: "We abolished one machine only to replace it with another and more powerful one in the making."[36] The GI government of Athens, Tennessee collapsed. Tennessee's GI political movement quickly faded and politics in the state returned to normal.[15][37] The Non-Partisan GI Political League had replied to inquires by veterans elsewhere in the United States with the advice that shooting it out was not the most desirable solution to political problems.[31]
posted by danny the boy at 6:25 PM on February 25, 2018

« Older Workplace bullies, sexual aggressors...   |   strange anomalous iphone behavior Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.