Jewish World Review April 11, 2003 / 9 Nisan, 5763

Eve Tushnet

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If Second Amendment enthusiasts are right that widespread gun ownership protects against tyranny, what's up with a New York Times report saying most Iraqi households were armed and gun shops were doing brisk business? | It's a cute little question: If Second Amendment enthusiasts are right that widespread gun ownership protects against tyranny, what's up with a New York Times report saying most Iraqi households were armed and gun shops were doing brisk business? They had guns, so how come they didn't topple their own tyrant?

Timothy Noah made the argument on on March 14: "In the March 11 New York Times, Neil MacFarquhar notes in passing, 'Most Iraqi households own at least one gun.' This comes as a shock to those of us who've been hearing for years from the gun lobby that widespread firearms ownership is necessary to prevent the United States from becoming a police state. Here, via the National Rifle Association's Web site, is Bill Pryor, attorney general of Alabama, decrying the 'war on guns': 'In a republic that promotes a free society, as opposed to a police state, one of the basic organizing principles is that individuals have a right of self-defense and a right to acquire the means for that defense.'" Noah concludes, "The obvious question raised by MacFarquhar's piece is how Iraq got to be, and remains, one of the world's most repressive police states when just about everyone is packing heat."

Noah's question is a tempting talking point, but it seriously misunderstands the nature of news, the nature of tyranny, and the nature of rights.

First, news. It's odd that Noah hangs his argument on one report that leaves many questions unanswered. pointed out that the Times report was filed before the liberation of Baghdad, so reporters were still hard-pressed to ditch their government "minders" in order to get inside ordinary Iraqis' homes. Do Iraqis throughout the country have similar gun access, or do Sunnis have more access than Shi'a? Is there any evidence that ordinary Iraqis--rather than Friends Of Saddam, or similarly "trustworthy" types--could get a firearm when they needed one? Megan McArdle of writes, "Noah tries to counter this by saying that given that [MacFarquhar] was in a gun shop where transactions were taking place, the Iraqi people at least have free access to guns. But he knows no such thing. All he knows is that the people in the gun shop in Baghdad were able to buy guns from that gun store owner. We don't know who you need to know, pay, or present in order to buy a gun in that store.

"...It may be that the Iraqi people do have a theoretical right to buy weapons. But if they do, I suspect that they lack access, in the sense of an actual ability to do so, since access is controlled by something else the regime hands out: cash. If memory servers, something like 60% of the country subsisted entirely on the oil-for-food handouts. The people with the cash to buy a gun are also most likely to be the people with ties to the regime."

Moreover, totalitarian dictators maintain their power in part through propaganda designed to inculcate fatalism in their subjects. The dictator, the state, are set up as replacement gods. The state (supposedly) provides for all its subjects' needs. The state controls all that subjects know about the outside world. The dictator is presented as if he is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent. That's why totalitarians always persecute religions that offer alternate gods, rivals to the dictator, and alternatives to fatalism. That's the reason behind all those huge statues--idols--of Saddam; and that's why it's so psychologically important to knock the statues down and tear up the posters. Removing the oppressive sense that Saddam is constantly watching produces an enormous, liberating relief.

This sense of fatalism means that once the dictatorship is already in place, it takes a lot for subjects to rise up against it. Going against a dictator who has invested millions of dollars in convincing you that he is omnipotent doesn't just take guts--it takes a passionate belief in possibility. And so while gun ownership may help stave off tyranny in some circumstances, once tyranny is already in place it is too easy for isolated gun owners to believe that there's no point, if they fight back they will inevitably be crushed, why risk? Why not just hang on and try to survive for another day? Noah acknowledges this point, but his response--"This one begs the question, which is not how a demoralized armed populace could fail to overthrow a brutal regime, but rather, how a non-demoralized armed populace could have allowed that brutal regime to emerge in the first place"--assumes that gun ownership was as widespread prior to the Ba'ath Party's 1968 ascent as it is now (if it even is widespread now).

And once a dictatorship is already in place, those isolated gun owners might well be right. They might, indeed, be unable to topple their tyrant on their own. The most common argument against the guns-ward-off-tyranny claim is that guns might have been able to do that back in the 1700s, but nowadays you need tanks and rocket launchers to make a stand against a government bent on tyranny. This argument applies to Baghdad, but also to the United States, and it is certainly the most compelling counter to the gun-rights claim.

But the gun-rights claim does not require a belief that guns are magic. Of course a posse of weekend warriors with deer rifles and handguns can't defeat the entire Iraqi military apparatus. What gun ownership does, in the face of modern military technology, is not force a defeat, but force a confrontation. At, one reader writes, "Armies are noisy. They're big. Your neighbors know all about them. And they can't take you quietly at night. When the government brings massive overwhelming force to bear against its own citizens, the media notices, and gets involved. And, however superficially, your grievance with the government, or the government's grievance with you, gets aired.

"That, I think, is the protection against tyranny. Not that you can somehow battle the government to a standstill -- you can't now, and you couldn't in Revolutionary War days. But that everyone can see what the government is doing, and then they can oppose it if they choose to."

Here we see one of the most important points about human rights: They reinforce one another. Gun rights guard against random criminal activity, but they can only guard against governmental encroachments when a free press is able to report on confrontations and spread the word throughout the country. This is analogous to the fact that nominal freedom of the press is meaningless without property rights: When government controls the means of production, how could any printing press go against government edicts? When government decides who can sell what to whom and for how much, it can also decide who can meet where (room rental fees) and who can say what (book or magazine sales, speaker fees, Internet connections). That's how some post-Soviet government officials have tried to root out nascent religious revivals, using harsh licensing and regulation to prevent church groups from having any place to meet. Without a right to assemble, the right to free exercise of religion is threatened. Our rights shore one another up.

Noah's argument operates on the margins of the American gun-rights debate, which is more concerned with crime than with tyranny. (Although there are two connections: When citizens feel like they have no protection from crime, they are much more likely to support repressive measures to "restore order." Thus private gun ownership, by making citizens feel safer, may make them less willing to turn to extreme anti-crime measures.) But pressing for disarmament as a solution to international problems--which is the alternative to the gun-rights position--has already led to disaster in countries ranging from Zimbabwe to East Timor, as documented by Dave Kopel of the Independence Institute. Noah's dismissal of guns as anti-dictator devices would likely ring quite false to people who gave up their guns only to see their families slaughtered by enemies who refused to put down their own arms. So again, even if guns can't topple all tyrants, they can still keep some tyrants at bay.

The final point to be made is, of course, this: Simply because one right, in isolation, is not enough to bring down a modern totalitarian state, that in no way implies that the right is useless in warding off tyranny; useless for other purposes; not really a right at all; or a right we can sharply curtail or do away with entirely. For Americans, guns are infinitely more likely to be used against robbers than against dictators or genocidaires. That doesn't mean that guns are unnecessary here, nor does it mean that guns are useless against dictatorship elsewhere.

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© 2002, Eve Tushnet