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Tuesday, June 23, 2009
By Steven L. Taylor

Politico.com (and elsewhere) noted a Tweet from Mark Rubio (a candidate for the GOP’s nomination to run for the US Senate from Florida) regarding the situation in Iran:

“I have a feeling the situation in Iran would be a little different if they had a 2nd amendment like ours,” Rubio tweeted on Sunday.

What strikes me about the comment (and subsequent commentary such as at Hot Air and at the Weekly Standard) is that it feeds into a fantasy that many in the US have about the efficacy of gun ownership in the context of tyranny, i.e., that personal gun ownership is somehow a safeguard against authoritarian repression.1 I would note, by the way, that I favor the ability of citizens to own guns to protect their homes from criminals and so my goal here is not a rant against gun ownership, but rather a comment on the realities to be associated with confronting the coercive power of a repressive state.

There are a number of things that can be said about this notion that an armed citizenry can confront and overpower state security forces. In a generic sense let’s consider the US context: if (and this is a big if, I will grant) the United States government decided to deploy its security apparatus against its citizens in the context of electoral fraud I don’t care how well armed the civilians are, if the National Guard or Army (or, for that matter, your local SWAT unit, BATF agents, etc.) come rolling into your neighborhood, handguns and rifles aren’t going to matter. Could you use such weapons to form a guerrilla movement? Sure, but take down the state? I think not.

If the state has loyal security forces at its disposal, an armed citizenry will not only not be able to stop tyrannical application of force, it will soon find itself to be either an ununarmed and/or dead citizenry.

To be direct: there is no example of an armed insurgency (let alone armed protesters) taking over a modern state if the security apparatus remains intact and under the control of that state (if one has a counter-example, I’d love to hear it). For a revolutionary change to come about it takes more (far more) than simply an unhappy mob, armed or otherwise. Indeed, in the context of Iran this is why I have tried to emphasize the intra-elite (and inter-institutional) conflicts in that case. Street protests alone are never enough.

To the Iranian example in specific, let’s consider what would have happened had the protesters taken the to the street with arms. The result would have been the ability of the Supreme Leader and other state actors to have declared an insurrection and it would have justified a massive crackdown on the protesters and the opposition in general-violence would have solidified the idea that repression was the proper course of action. It would have been an utterly counter-productive move. Further, the army would have easily defeated such an insurrection. These types of situations are most clearly better served by non-violent protest. Indeed, it is more likely that segments of the security forces will defy the state if they are ordered to attack peaceful protesters, but facing armed insurgents would likely unify the security forces behind the state.

Rubio’s Tweet reminds me of a talk I once gave to the Troy Kiwani’s Club about drugs in Colombia. One of the questions that was asked of me was about gun ownership in Colombia. The implication of the question, which was clear after he asked a follow-up, was that if the citizens were armed that Colombia wouldn’t have a crime and violence problem. I assured him that availability of firearms was not the problem in Colombia.

Such a notion is also an example of the bravado that seems to be the mainstay of many in the US who comment on complex events abroad. It’s the kind of thing that one says to one’s friends and family while watching TV or perhaps if one is a radio talk show host. However, it really is a rather intemperate and simplistic view for someone who wants to either be a serious analyst or a US Senator.

  1. Usually this is based on a simplistic extrapolation from gun ownership in the colonies during the Revolutionary War. Let’s just say that the nature of warfare as well as the coercive capacity of states have changed quite a bit since the 1770s. Beyond that, the notion that independence was won simply because a bunch of armed citizens took on the British military is a gross over-simplification of what happened. []
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12 Responses to “Fantasies about Guns and Protests (Rubio’s Tweet and Some Thoughts on Overthrowing Governments)”

  1. Miguel Madeira Says:

    “To be direct: there is no example of an armed insurgency (let alone armed protesters) taking over a modern state if the security apparatus remains intact and under the control of that state”

    But this is not a bit circular? of course, if an armed insurgency defeats a state, it should have a moment when the “security apparatus” of the state collapse, almost by definition.

    What you think of the cases of:

    - Cuba (1959)
    - Nicaragua (1979)
    - Uganda (1986)
    - Ethiopia (1991)
    - Rwanda (1994)

    I am not saying that these examples are correct, I am only sugesting

  2. Steven L. Taylor Says:

    My point is that in the cases in question the fracturing of the state and its security apparatus was not brought on by the brute force of the mob, armed or otherwise.

    If we take the cases from the list with which I am most familiar, i.e., Cuba and Nicaragua, we would find that it was a series of events, much of which that had to do with the state imploding as the result of withdrawal of support from the US, the fleeing of a patrimonial dictator and the lack of a well institutionalized state and security apparatus that allowed a revolution to take place, not because some of the citizens were mad/armed.

    One can contrast, say, Nicaragua with El Salvador, in terms of state capacity in the face of an insurgency. Or, one could look at the Colombian case-a well institutionalized state that has been able to withstand numerous guerrilla movements (and other violent actors) for decades.

    The point is that there is no example of a modern state falling to armed civilians as the result of the brute force generated by those civilians (or even insurgents).

    In the African cases in question, we are talking about state disintegration and/or full blown civil war, not just street protests.

  3. Steven L. Taylor Says:

    Put another way: when we look at cases of state collapse, the question is what caused them to do so. My point is that one is hard pressed to find a case in which the mob, and the mob alone, overtook the state.

    It is even difficult to find cases in which well organized armed insurgencies were able to overthrow the state.

    In the Iranian case if there is going to be massive change, it will be because certain elite factions defeated other elite factions, not because of street protests. That is not to say that the protests aren’t important, they are-but the role they play is frequently substantially overestimated.

  4. MSS Says:

    Iraq under Saddam Hussein had one of the highest individual gun-ownership rates in the world, or so I recall hearing on more than one occasion. It did not exactly make a tyranny more unstable. It certainly did make the country more unstable once the state had been dismantled by other means.

  5. Chuck E. Arla Says:

    What I think you have described is the reason why “terrorism” is going to be a preferred tactic worldwide, and for many years to come.

    Have you considered Northern Ireland as a recent, first-world example? While UK security forces may not have been defeated, they were eventually brought to a bargaining table that would never have been reached without the level of resistance applied.

  6. Glenn Garvin Says:

    Professor Taylor, while I’m not in disagreement with your fundamental point about Iran, I have to disagree with you about the specific case of Nicaragua, which I covered for many years as a foreign correspondent. The withdrawal of U.S. aid to Somoza and the resulting implosion of the state were triggered precisely by the military success of the Sandinista insurgency. The Nicaraguan population and the Carter administration reached a simultaneous and symbiotic conclusion that to back Somoza was to back a loser.

    This pattern continued in the second Nicaragua civil war, in which the U.S.-backed contras challenged the Sandinista regime. It was the striking military success of the contras (which went largely unreported in American newspapers) which not only forced the Sandinistas to peace negotiations which they had sworn they would never conduct, but emboldened the Sandinistas’ domestic political opponents to become more aggressive. The eventual result was the defeat of the Sandinistas in an internationally supervised election that would never have taken place without the successful armed opposition of the Sandinistas.

    Nicaraguans themselves — who, unfortunately, have vast experience with repressive regimes and armed insurgencies — refer to this front-runner effect as “when the tortilla flips.” Whether we’re talking about tortillas, pancakes or crepes, there’s no reason to suppose it’s restricted to Nicaragua. Insurgencies (as opposed to simple criminal banditry) always include a political component that cannot easily be extricated from the armed activities. In Cuba, Batista’s political unpopularity contributed to his military failures, and his military failures contributed to his political weakness. They cannot be so easily separated.

    Anyone who cares to read more than I’ve already written in this impossibly long-winded post can pick up my book “Everyone Had His Own Gringo: The CIA and the Contras.” Though available on Amazon.com, it’s out of print and I don’t get any royalties from sales, which I hope makes this less of an ad and more of an invitation.

  7. Glenn Garvin Says:

    One erroneous omission in the previous post: I meant to say the “striking 1987 military success” of the contras.

  8. Steven L. Taylor Says:

    Glenn,

    Thanks for the note. My point was not the military aspect of the FSLN campaign was unimportant, but rather that it was far from a case simply of insurgents militarily defeating the state. Part of the situation in Nicaragua was, as you know, a rather weak and uninstutuionalized state that was built around the personal power of Somoza. The National Guard was less the national military than they were Somoza’s personal security forces. A series of events, including the assassination of Pedro Chamarro led to a backlash against Somoza and his government. There was a combination of factors, from FSLN violence, the actions of the Carter administration, and the reaction of Nicaraguan elites to Somoza’s government that led to the downfall.

    In short: my simple point is that armed insurgents, and in and of themselves, are insufficient to create revolutionary change-other factors are of importance (indeed, great importance).

    One can contrast, as noted above, the FSLN in Nicaragua and the FMLN in El Salvador. The FMLN were faced with a more powerful state apparatus that also received a great deal of US support. Their violence eventually led to a settlement, but only after a stale-mated civil war. There was no revolution, no regime change, however.

  9. Steven L. Taylor Says:

    And, in re: the contras, consider what they would have been sans the support of the US.

  10. PoliBlog: A Rough Draft of my Thoughts » Gun Fantasies and Overthrowing Governments Continued Says:

    [...] sent out a copy of my post entitled Fantasies about Guns and Protests (Rubio’s Tweet and Some Thoughts on Overthrowing Governments) to an e-mail list. As a result I have been sent several e-mails form people who think I am an Ivory [...]

  11. MSS Says:

    On Nicaragua, I guess it depends on what a “military defeat” is. When the commanders of a state fighting force simply flee because the head of the force has resigned, is that a military defeat? I would say not.

  12. Steven L. Taylor Says:

    On Nicaragua, I guess it depends on what a “military defeat” is. When the commanders of a state fighting force simply flee because the head of the force has resigned, is that a military defeat? I would say not.

    I concur.


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