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Friday, June 26, 2009
By Steven L. Taylor

Someone 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 Tower loon who is full of beans and who doesn’t understand that the main guarantor of freedom and democracy is an armed citizenry. That I explicitly stated in the post that I am not opposed to personal gun ownership apparently didn’t penetrate in some cases, as many of the e-mailers seem to assume that my goal is gun control rather than making an empirically supportable statement founded in actual social science.

I have been informed, for example, that the only reason that Hitler did not invade Switzerland was because its citizens were armed and that Estonia was overrun by both the Nazis and the Soviets because its citizens were not armed. Further, I have been told that any claim that modern states have coercive capacities that are especially difficult for armed crowds to overcome is problematic because, after all, states have never used nukes against protesters. So notes some guy named Randy:

So the disparity in force between a modern army and the U.S. citizenry is not nearly as wide a gulf as Mr. Taylor assumes without thinking. If you don’t believe that, try to come up with the press release that would adequately explain why the Feds launched 5 MX missiles with 8 nuclear warheads apiece at Los Angeles and Phoenix, killing 3 million Americans. Bzzzzt! Wrong answer. There is no way to explain that.

I am unaware of any massive insurrection in Phoenix, but if anyone knows of one, feel free to let me know. The LA reference, I think, is to the riots of 1992 in response to the videotaped beating of Rodney King by the LA police or perhaps the 1965 Watts Riots. Regardless, the efficacy of such events as evidence of the power of the mob versus the state strikes me as problematic, given that eventually order was restored rather than the state being overthrown. Further, neither was a case of armed uprising, but rather of unorganized mob violence.

Setting the appropriateness of the example(s) aside, the notion that the only gap between even a well-armed citizenry and the modern state is missiles and nukes demonstrates a rather problematic understanding of the arms, armor and general capabilities of modern states when it comes to coercion.

Another assertion that I find of interest is the fact that most of the people who seem interested in pointing out the power of guns to maintain stability like to discuss how Americans would be unified against their own government if it turned tyrannical. However, such assertions seem to miss the point that if the whole of the American people were unified, the government wouldn’t and couldn’t turn into a tyranny.

Back to actual social science:

1. My fundamental point remains not that violence is unimportant as a political tool. but that it is almost impossible for violence alone from street protests to lead to the military defeat of a unified, modern state. Such an observation is only one component of a broader discussion of regime change.

2. There are far more examples of failed attempts at change via violence and protest than there are of successes.

3. Violence by a crowd is often counter-productive as it gives the authorities the a veneer of legitimacy when they order severe crackdowns. It is, as I have noted, easier for security forces to fire upon citizens who are already firing at them than it is to fire on peaceful protesters.

4. Gun ownership is clearly not the decisive variable in the maintenance of democratic governance given the simple fact that in most modern democracies the ability of citizens to own firearms is normally far more restrictive than is the case in the US (e.g., much of Europe).

And while we continue to abide in Ivory Tower, let’s go to some history: a lot of what I have been told is based on an analogy to 1776. There are a lot of problems with that analogy, but one glaring one is that the arms of the state were a lot closer in power to those of civilians in the later 18th Century than is currently the case. Beyond that, the Revolutionary War was not won by mobs, but by an organized army.

Let me again state for the record that the correct observation that it is difficult for an armed mob to overthrow an entrenched state really is not a comment one way or the other about gun rights, per se. My only argument in that vein is the notion that is it automatically the case that an armed citizenry is all it takes to overtake the state is empirically problematic and discounts the capacities of such states and ignores the limited power that even a large mob has.

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7 Responses to “Gun Fantasies and Overthrowing Governments Continued”

  1. MSS Says:

    The perils of blogging revealed!

    On the social science, I would think it is probably an iron law that revolts by (some) citizens, armed or otherwise, have succeeded only where (1) the coercive forces of the state split or otherwise were rendered incapable of suppression, or (2) an armed organization of citizens acquired conventional weaponry on a par with that of the state (often because of 1).

    And it is not a trivial matter that the American groups most fond of gun ownership significantly overlap with those most fond of authoritarian governance, suggesting that a tyranny in America would most likely be established (and I would say very nearly was in recent years, with legacies such as the sort of talk-show rabble-rouser cited, disapprovingly, on this blog earlier) with the active support of such armed citizens, and not despite them.

  2. Anon Says:

    It is clearly true that there is no way that an armed citizenry can defeat a modern military state in a conventional military campaign. However, I’m not (yet) completely convinced that there are not some scenarios where an armed citizenry can make a significant difference.

    Are there scenarios where knowing that the populace was armed was enough to tip armies over to disobeying orders, where the soldiers were already reluctant to shoot their own?

    (For the record, I’m agnostic on gun control.)

  3. Steven L. Taylor Says:

    If security forces believe that they are the legitimate tool of a legitimate state, then the potential that the target of state coercion might be armed will not dissuade them from action. A simple example would be US police forces. The police in the US are more then willing to put themselves in harm’s way if they believe that they are doing the right thing.

    The relevant question here is not whether armed oppositions dissuade security forces but rather what makes those forces lose faith in the legitimacy of the state. One of those things can be, as I continue to note, a fractured elite.

  4. Anon Says:

    I assume by “armed” here we are only considering semi-automatic rifles, correct? In other words, examples like the Soviet-Afghan war don’t count, because they had Stingers and RPGs, etc., right?

  5. Professor Chaos Says:

    I’d quibble with the phrasing in point 1 in that it’s not “almost impossible” for violence to defeat a modern state, but that it is completely impossible.

    As your post implies, violence is merely an instrumental variable in protest movements/revolutions, and is only successful when it’s used in pursuit of political causes that are perceived as having greater legitimacy than existing policies (and even then it is very often counterproductive).

  6. Seth Owen Says:

    The Afghan example is inapplicable, as it involved armed opposition to foreign occupation, which is an entire different factual case.

    Theory aside, there’s no historical example of a modern (post-1500), unified continental-sized state falling to foriegn invasion, although several (USA 1861-5, Russia 1917-20, China 1930s-49) have been wracked by civil wars. In all the civil war cases the bulk ofthe fighting by all sides was conducted by organized military forces.

    As noted, the 1770s American Revolution was also fought by organized colonial militias and won by regular troops (including vital foreign aid), so it’s completely off-point for the armed citizenry argument.

  7. Steven L. Taylor Says:

    Prof C:

    Quite right. An unfortunate bit of linguistic hedging that I should have removed before posting.


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