It’s often dodgy to wade into the morass of America’s Culture Wars.  For non-Americans, the back and forth of American pundits (and Facebook commentators) seems asinine at the best of times.  It’s easy to view the whole exercise as pointless when you realize much of our culture wars revolve around what people like to do for fun, whether it’s shotgun blasting a rusty pick-up truck in the desert or having unprotected sex with people we would never marry.

That being said, there’s still an important discussion to be had here.  Last week, a disgruntled (and possibly a bit racist) ex-employee of a local news network killed a journalist and her cameraman on live TV.  That came on the heels a recent mass shooting in Charleston, South Carolina, where a white supremacist killed 9 people in a traditionally black church.

Each time a mass shooting occurs in the United States, a cycle asserts itself: Democrats and liberals point to gun ownership and, occasionally, racism, as the proximate causes, while Republicans and conservatives counter that a better-armed society would be more likely to prevent such tragedies.  Few minds change; many arguments are peddled; eventually, everyone forgets until the next dramatic shooting.

Within the comments of many a Facebook article lie arguments for gun ownership that are disconnected from geopolitical reality.  It was a brief exchange with one such commenter that inspired this article.

I won’t go into the criminology side of gun ownership, which is better detailed by more authoritative sources.  Rather, I’ll focus on guns in America from a geopolitical perspective.

So please, when you’re writing hate mail about how would I like it if some thugs broke in and raped my whole family as a direct result of being an unarmed society, do remember I’m not even remotely talking about that.  I’m focusing, rather, on gun ownership as it affects the geopolitical power of the United States.

And that’s to say, straight off, that gun ownership doesn’t much help the U.S. be a stronger nation-state.  Here are the reasons why.

  • The American 2nd Amendment was distinctly designed to help safeguard the U.S. when it was still too poor and weak to support a regular army, but that condition has long since passed.  America is more secure than any state has ever been in history.
  • That’s easy enough to accept, but many will say that guns prevent the rise of an American dictatorship.  That argument ignores the conditions that bring about dictatorships, which range from a popular despotism as Nazism was or a revolutionary tyranny like many Communist states.  In either case, gun ownership is a nil factor in preserving freedom.
  • If anything, high levels of gun ownership increase the likelihood of geopolitically traumatic civil wars, unrest, and assassinations, while siphoning state resources and power into better supplying and arming local police forces to keep pace with a citizenry that has few limits on firepower.
  • Finally, and most directly, lax gun controls in the United States have directly contributed to a worsening drug war in Mexico, threatening America’s crucial southern flank.

So let’s begin with the easiest-to-dismiss argument: guns make us safer from foreign enemies.

It’s absolutely unbelievably “can’t-think-of-enough-adverbs” untrue that a high level of gun ownership dissuades foreign nation-states from invading the U.S.

Let’s just talk basic numbers.

The U.S. has 10 aircraft carrier battlegroups that are more powerful than the rest of the world’s navies combined.  It has just short of 14,000 aircraft in its Air Force.  Combined, Russia and China have just half that.  It has 2.5 million active and reserve troops backed by 8,800 tanks, 41,000 armored fighting vehicles, and some 4,000 pieces of artillery of various classes.

That’s not to mention its 4,700 nuclear weapons. 1,900 of those are ready to go at the press of a button.

Even if an enemy could overcome the vast conventional superiority the U.S. enjoys, it would still have to stop America from ending humanity through nuclear war.  Since America’s nuclear deterrent is spread out in silos, bombers, and subs, that’s just about impossible.

When generals in Beijing and Moscow may daydream of occupying New York, they do so without thinking of some backwoods hunters with their AR-15s.

Okay, but what about terrorists?  Haven’t they been stopped by well-armed private citizens?

No. Not once.  In Garland, Texas, two Islamic State-inspired shooters attempted to attack a “Draw the Prophet” contest: they were shot by police, not cowboys.

The Washington, D.C., sniper of 2002, an al-Qaeda inspired terrorist, was captured by police.

Richard Reid, the 2002 so-called “shoe bomber,” was overcome by unarmed passengers on his flight as he attempted to set off explosives hidden in his shoes.

Even recently, in France, an armed gunman was taken down by unarmed American servicemen who just happened to be on the train.

But they could be stopped by a well-armed private citizen. 

This is possible, but unlikely for reasons rooted in military doctrine.  Should a terrorist decide to open fire in, say, a mall, this is the equivalent of an ambush.  Having chosen both the time and the place of the attack, the initiative is with the gunman rather than with his targets, who are best off seeking cover.

A private citizen, even if well-armed, is automatically at a major disadvantage.  That citizen is not part of a team; even if other random NRA members join forces, they aren’t trained to work together and are likely to make mistakes that get themselves or innocent people killed.  Since they don’t know one another, they aren’t likely to operate well as a team; in the heat of the moment, they’re just as likely to spray bullets as dangerously as the gunman or gunmen.

Trained forces capable of operating in teams, like police, SWAT, and platoons of soldiers, are much, much better at taking out such an enemy.  Their organizational skills makes them far more lethal than their armaments, being capable of carrying out flanking maneuvers, efficiently using covering fire, and having standardized communication methods that cut down on mistakes.

That being said, even this extremely unlikely scenario might be worth it – if only there weren’t other, much worse geopolitical outcomes from high rates of gun ownership.  But more on that later.

So if guns don’t make the United States safer from enemy armies or terrorists, what about the argument that it keeps the country politically free?

What about an American Caesar, Hitler, Stalin, Saddam, etc.?  Aren’t all societies capable of tyranny?

Very much so.  But dictatorships are not stopped by well-armed private citizens.  Here’s why.

Because authoritarian governments come about in one of two ways: they either are demanded by the people, or they are able to take advantage of anarchy or unrest to reorganize society.

If a government is unable to give enough people what they want, you get a revolution.  Sometimes, people want a “strong” government in power: such governments are often dictatorial, because society has concluded that it’s better to have more security, whether economic, political, military, or social, than liberty.

Case in point is modern Egypt.  In 2013, Egypt was nominally democratic, but its democratic president, Mohammed Morsi, had run the country quite badly.  Rather than wait for elections, swarms of people demanded the army take charge and oust Morsi.  Once in place, the army put one of its own, Fatah Al-Sisi, who promptly, to a great deal of cheers, ended Egyptian democracy. Egyptians concluded they were better off under a strongman who could deliver them from instability.

In such a case, a well-armed citizenry doesn’t matter, since the majority of people back the dictatorship.  The few who don’t – and in Egypt’s case, there were plenty who didn’t like that turn of events – are politically and sometimes physically destroyed by the agents of the majority.  In Egypt, this was the Rabaa Massacre, where the Egyptian army butchered its way through Morsi’s supporters with nary a peep from the rest of the country.

But what if those protesters were armed?  Couldn’t they have turned the tide?

In the case of a popular dictatorship, no, they wouldn’t have.  For each soldier they killed, the more they’d be hated by the rest of the country, who would be more willing to give up yet more power to the military regime to crush what would be painted as a terrorist threat.  If anything, being armed and fighting back would empower a popular dictatorship rather than break it.

In the U.S., if enough voters demanded a military government, they would get it.  The minority that might fight back violently would be crushed by a much more powerful army.  Worse, from the perspective of political liberty, for every soldier the freedom-loving rebels killed, the more unpopular they and their ideas would become.

In other words, if tyranny took power because Americans wanted one, no amount of gun ownership could prevent it.

Then there’s the other way dictatorships take control of states, which is when states are falling apart in civil wars, invasions, or mass unrest.

When a state has failed in a nation, like in Somalia, Congo, and arguably Syria, gun ownership accelerates the chaos rather than stymies it.  When every idiot and his brother has a gun, armed factions flourish; warlordism thrives; anarchy becomes the order of the day, and, rather than the NRA leading a column of disciplined hunters to restore the Constitution, you get Mad Max.  

Liberty grows for a handful of new elites, but vanishes for everyone else, who must scurry within the new, violent political landscape to survive.

In order to rebuild a state from such chaos, a strong state must emerge, and strong states do not much love liberty.  Case in point is Syria, where the most effective factions are also the most ruthless.  The Assad regime still exists because it’s been willing to trample every freedom it can, while the Islamic State has come to the fore by annihilating an entire social contract.

If anything, high levels of gun ownership accelerate such a collapse: when the state is outgunned by its citizens, it has a hard time managing them.  To upset one faction can cause a death spiral of violence best exemplified by Somalia.  Once foreign aid ended with the Cold War, the state was no longer able to bribe all the tribes and factions it needed in the country to stay intact. Instead, the state evaporated and everyone grabbed as many guns as possible from state arsenals.

So once more, having guns in the hands of private citizens will not preserve a society’s liberty.

And this leads us to the geopolitical pitfalls of gun ownership: when citizens are better armed than the police, the police cannot do their job.  The state must expend more resources to ensure it has an edge: witness the militarization of police across the United States, which has coincided with the spread of assault weapons across the U.S.

Compare that to the mostly unarmed police of the United Kingdom, who nevertheless police a much denser population.

High levels of guns also make geopolitically traumatic events like violent unrest, assassinations, and civil wars more, not less, likely.  While civil wars are not caused by gun ownership, they are accelerated by them when elites decide to take their interests to the battlefield.  This is what’s happened in Yemen, one of the best-armed countries on Earth.  Its instability in rooted in geography and demography, but its violence is accelerated by the level of armaments its people have.

While relatively unarmed countries like the U.K. and Canada rarely suffer assassinations, the United States has lost numerous politicians and leaders to the bullets of lone wolves, including Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, and, most probably, JFK.  These events were all rooted in deeply held political disagreements between the shooters and their victims.  What made the assassinations easier was America’s gun ownership society.

And finally, there’s the very real security threat gun ownership poses to the critical American southern flank in Mexico.

Mexico has relatively stringent gun laws: cartels find it much easier to traffic guns across the border rather than risk the black market in Mexico itself.  Since the U.S. allows the sale of heavy armaments, it takes only a few unethical gun dealers to flood Mexico’s cartels with enough firepower and ammunition to go toe-to-toe with the Mexican state itself.

Such chaos threatens the viability of Mexico as a nation-state; should it collapse, it would be the greatest security threat to the United States since the Soviet Union, with a Somalia-like scenario along its massive border filled with warlords, terrorists, and criminal gangs.  The United States would be obligated to intervene to ensure such chaos didn’t spill into the Southwest; that intervention would be expensive, long, and unlike Iraq, absolutely critical.  To lose Mexico to anarchy would be intolerable for the superpower, since its many foes would rush into the power vacuum to establish bases to strike the American mainland.

From a geopolitical perspective, there’s not much reason to value gun ownership for any society.

Armed private citizens don’t stop invading armies, nor do they stop terrorists.  They can’t stop dictatorships from coming to power; only strong, democratic institutions and middle class economies can.  Finally, they allow politics to go violent much, much faster: civil wars are easier to start, assassinations are simpler to carry out, and police forces must militarize to keep pace with what’s on the street.

For the United States, lax gun controls are contributing to the weakening of a critical ally.  Without Mexico, the U.S. no longer dominates its own backyard, the precursor to superpower status.  Without a lone superpower, the planet becomes decidedly more violent.

From the perspective of individual freedom, there’s an argument to be had.  From the perspective of the law, there’s a debate worth carrying out.  Even cultural discussions have merit.  But nobody should pretend guns make America stronger or geopolitically more secure.

That security is something far beyond the power of a few mere guns.

13 thoughts on “The Geopolitical Argument Against Gun Ownership

  1. Very interesting and astute observations – and timely with so many examples of heavily armed societies running amuck. One could argue that if more middle eastern people were armed (think Syrians, et al) there wouldn’t be such a mass exodus of people trying to enter Europe for a safer life. However, there a many people who don’t relish the horror and cruelty of war (think of the large scale surrenders of Iraqi soldiers during the 90’s gulf war) and wouldn’t use weapons even if they had them. Changing America’s psyche on gun ownership will not be easy or simple; however, to push for responsible ownership might stand a chance, e.g. requiring gun owners/buyers to be trained and pass a test might be helpful.

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  2. I think it kind of depends who’s running the state and who’s inhabiting it. If you’re Polish in Poland, the government is “us” and if you shoot at it you’re an axe-handle traitor. But if you’re Bosniak or Albanian in Yugoslavia, the government is “them” and they really are coming to murder you and your family. So if you live in China for instance and you’re Han, your interest is to have strict gun controll, even in the hands of the Communists, but if you’re Tibetan, your rational interest would be to be as well armed as possible yourself. I think the problem here is that many Americans have this perception that the US gov’ment isn’t “us” it’s some other force, controlled by some unknown factions which might favour Yankees, or Blacks or whatever instead of the local communities who decide they want to be armed.

    So the problem is with American identity. A large chunk of the country is inhabited by what could quite accurately be described as a different ethnicity (Southerners), as different from other Anglo-Saxons as Canadians are from the British or the Scots from Australians. During the last war of words over the Confederate flag I’ve come across a video of some kind of protest in Georgia where a Southerner was speaking to a shockingly large crowd which included many women (so not the demographic one might think), saying things like “Southland is ours!”. It kind of reminded me of “Al-Quds lana!”. That’s a nasty kind of problem for a government to have.

    The rest of the White Anglo-Saxons are sometimes racist, a residual influence from the times the US government wanted to assimilate all those Italians and Irish and Germans and Poles so they nation-built around this idea of “White”. Obviously this pushes the Blacks to get armed as well, which means that more Whites and Southerners want to get armed also and so on. Add the absolutely unbelievable culture of conspiracy theories and you get a country that just wouldn’t disarm.

    The problem here is that the armed people need to be convinced – any social unrest that would result from them resisting would be the happiness of the Russians and the Chinese, so you can’t really do it by force if the armed ones aren’t willing to change their ways. Because if they resist and the media start using the words “civil unrest” or “civil war” with regards to America, what will happen to the economy? Doesn’t matter that the government will win, Wall Street still tanks. Ideally, the government will nation-build a new, inclusive American identity so people wouldn’t feel threatened by “others”. Problem is… the establishment has pushed the rather racist “White” identity for so long a lot of people are a bit confused by the change in rhetoric. As for the South, you guys have the Scotland problem (and if mismanaged risking to become America’s Palestine problem – not good). A lot of the times you can get them on board but… see what Scotland does today.

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    1. I think you hit the nail on the head for why so many Americans won’t part with guns: they fear the Other. That Other is, as you’ve right noted, reinforced my race and racism, conspiracy, and even geography. Sure, there’s a New South, but there’s still very much an Old South that developed quite differently from the rest of the United States because it had a better growing season and fewer mineral resources.

      I think the only way to change America’s gun culture is through reason. My purpose with this piece was to do just that. Discard the idea that having a gun at home will keep tyranny, terrorists, or foreign armies at bay, because tyrants come to power regardless of how well armed citizens are, terrorists don’t care how armed you are, and organized armies will always defeat disorganized groups of people.

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  3. I’ve yet to see someone make this particular argument, but I’m glad you did, especially in pointing out just how dictatorships actually come about. I know that some people have laughingly tried to claim that gun ownership could have prevented World War II, or at least the Holocaust. These people also lack a basic understanding of history.

    I will say that the smaller picture you briefly mentioned, about someone breaking in, is also one where the gun arguments fail. But there’s no need to get into that right now since it wasn’t the focus of this piece.

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    1. Thanks. For the record, I think a break in is much akin to an ambush and that victims of break ins have already lost as soon as they happen. A better strategy is to prevent the ambush to begin with, wouldn’t you say?

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      1. True, though that’s not the way I look at the whole thing. With an armed break-in of an occupied dwelling, it’s most likely because the person knows the place or the people there and has some sort of plan. They came willing to fight, so standing and playing to the scenario they created is risky.

        I just see the scenario as mainly wishful thinking among most people, usually the same sorts who wish they could have stopped a movie theater shooting. Because of course you’re going to have perfect aim in a dark theater with screaming, panicky people running everywhere.

        My main gripe with it is that the majority of break-ins are specifically done when no one is at home. Most burglars are actually non-violent (otherwise, they’d be sticking people or businesses up instead) and make sure to rob a house when no one is around. For obvious reasons, that means a gun does nothing to protect against them. What happens instead is that a burglar steals their firearms, suddenly having access to a gun on the homeowner’s dime. Turns out a lot of gun owners don’t lock their guns up.

        For the years between 2005 and 2010, the Bureau of Justice Statistics put the number at about 172,000 firearms stolen each year in burglaries. (http://www.bjs.gov/content/pub/pdf/fshbopc0510.pdf) I’d like to see updated statistics on that one, given that those are getting a bit old. The argument “If guns are criminalized, only criminals will have guns,” when 172,000 guns a year only get into criminal hands because they were stolen from people who (hopefully) were legally allowed to own them.

        So that’s what happens the majority of time an unwelcome visitor breaks into someone’s home. There are times when someone else breaks into a home while someone’s actually present and a firearm can/has been useful, but I think it’s difficult to say that it was really the only solution in the vast majority of cases. After all, proper gun safety requires keeping the gun and ammo locked up so it’s not easily accessible. Improper gun safety is what leads to little kids shooting themselves playing cops and robbers, or to burglars stealing the guns. Meanwhile, whoever decided to break in probably has a gun, obtained through a variety of legal or illegal means. I find that less of an argument against gun regulation and more against firearm proliferation.

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      2. Glad that could be of some help. I first realized it thanks to have a bit better knowledge of insurance claims.

        There’s maybe one I know of where the person didn’t lose all their guns to a burglary that occurred while they were out of town, and that’s because he had something like 20 more they could have grabbed if they hadn’t taken the time to drag this big safe of his out of his bedroom and right out his front door, tearing up his marble floor in the process. A pretty good example of the problem I mentioned all around, actually.

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  4. Great article as always. One thing I noticed was missing was a brief synopsis of the history of America owning firearms and why they play such a pivotal (rightly or wrongly) in our culture.

    You start with the American Revolution, in which land owners formed militias using their own firearms that were crucial in the opening years of the 13 colonies. When there was nothing but thousands of miles of wilderness full of unhappy Native Americans and animal predators, owning a weapon was needed for survival.

    Once the Revolution ended, the pioneers continued to move further and further into the frontier. Again, the same harsh realities required rifles. Technological advances, fueled strongly by the American Civil War, turned rifles into pistols and shotguns. The Civil War and conscription gave large amounts of average American training when they may otherwise never have needed any (such as factory worker from the Northern cities). Developments such as mass production, oil, gold, and railroads simply pushed those further and further into far-flung corners of the Continental US. Come the turn of the 20th century, most of the United States is conquered, formed, and developed from the days of the “Wild West”.

    I would state that gun ownership certainly contributed to making America a great nation-state, but i would also completely agree that it is no longer needed.

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    1. Thanks for that addendum and you’re totally right that I overlooked that part, especially since American gun culture is wrapped in in American hunting culture. Once Americans did have to hunt for meat as the frontier was settled, but that’s not the case any further; hunting is a sport, a cultural trait.

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  5. about the second amendment the militia part might be true, however the right of the people to bear arms seems should not be infringed seems to me it was designed to prevent the monopoly on force, which will invalidate any other law.

    rise of tyranny in some cases it’s because of a majority national beliefs but most times it’s a minority in control of armed forces, also it is difficult for a nation to have a common hate goal or interest and most times when it’s the case it involves invasions, the different interest, culture and beliefs will make difficult to create a national tyranny and makes it so that the armed minorities will be able to defend themselves.

    poverty, lack of resources and foreign intervention i believe are much more important conditions and most times they happened towards unarmed or poorly armed communities or countries.

    the war in mexico has been stopped to a certain degree by armed communities in response to the lack of help from the authorities, also the assumption that some gunshop owners will be capable to provide the amount of weapons and ammunition getting in mexico seems difficult to believe, and be easily verifiable.

    guns make us safer from foreign enemies.

    weapons monopolies, in this case a unified minority could choose key positions within the military and basically build its own private force within the country through screening of potential candidates and routing of potential threats.

    on the other hand in case of invasion an armed population has always been more difficult to control.

    but what about terrorists? Haven’t they been stopped by well-armed private citizens?

    true a terrorist attack will in most cases be a planned attack against vulnerable targets, it seems the solution would be not creating vulnerable targets, this doesn’t necessarily mean armed citizens but construction regulations, and other security measures that will make attacks difficult to be carried out and that will require significant increase in manpower and resources, for example avoid choke points, several hard cover areas, several exit routes, security doors at the entrance of bars, disco or other such places, etc.

    what about the argument that it keeps the country politically free?

    egypt, once ousted the army took charge so the people decided, is difficult to asses.
    even if political instability is used as a means to gain power the tyranny can only be installed by a minority which hold weapons monopoly, this has been the historical case.

    But what if those protesters were armed? Couldn’t they have turned the tide?

    yes they could have, in most cases tyrannies require money to keep their armies going killing them makes the situation untenable.

    in the case of a tyranny demonizing a minority it might be true that this will serve to further legitimize state aggression, but only to a certain point, and with certain restriction like the ones explained above.

    This also will make it even more important for the people to be on equal terms with their military or at least to be capable to fight back, since it will not require a majority but a majority created consent to accomplish this.

    Then there’s the other way dictatorships take control of states, which is when states are falling apart in civil wars, invasions, or mass unrest.

    this should be studied on a case by case basis, since in most cases it’s manufactured consent and foreign armed conflicts.

    In order to rebuild a state from such chaos, a strong state must emerge

    not necessarily true, two factions on equal standing will sign peace deals for fear of mutual destruction kind of like international politics.

    having guns in the hands of private citizens will not preserve a society’s liberty.

    citizens being equally armed than the police doesn’t mean they will be organized to combat them, what will be the interest of this?.

    police will respond in an organized way according to the threat and such threats in most cases can be controlled by surrounding the criminal where is he going to go?. crime is motivated by profit and momentary passion, most of the time.

    the uk cases or others in europe should be contrasted according to their political alliances, and compared with other places where gun restriction creates the opposite outcome.

    yemen, the case here seems to be unarmed population will pose no resistance to wherever change is imposed on them faced against an armed opposition.

    there’s the very real security threat gun ownership poses to the critical American southern flank in Mexico.

    i don’t think gun shops will be capable to send that many guns and ammo into mexico by themselves, there is also historical and present cases that show most likely it’s not the case.

    besides the mexican case shows the opposite, armed citizens brought stability back to their communities and then were arrested, for illegally carrying weapons.

    From a geopolitical perspective, there’s not much reason to value gun ownership for any society.

    armed citizens have historically and in present times stopped invading armies, like afghanistan, they can stop the most common type of tyranny a minority with weapons monopoly, and even in cases of a majority tyranny over a minority, weapons have stopped genocides.

    police has the advantage of an organized response against any threat, since they most likely won’t be facing an organized opposition, crime is either money driven or a passionate moment, organized opposition will mean war.

    civil wars are easier to start might be true but also there is the both parties armed deterrent, on the assassinations only the easy ones will be carried out, and even this it will require the death or capture of the killer.

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