One truism in America’s longstanding debate over guns and the meaning of the Second Amendment is that a well-armed populace is a final deterrent to tyrannical government. As evidence for this, the trope of the colonial Minutemen rushing out to defend Lexington and Concord from the perfidious British is continually trotted out to prove that only muskets and the willingness to use them kept King George at bay and American freedom alive.
So far as it goes, this example is historically accurate. The Minutemen and colonial militias were indeed important components of the fight for American independence, especially in the crucial early years when the nascent United States had yet to field anything approaching a professional army. Combined with the moral argument that self-defense in the face of crime necessitates the freedom to own weapons, the position of the pro-gun lobby in the U.S. has become all but unassailable.
And yet, this historical example is also a highly contingent one that nonetheless assumes as given the fact that the government, here the British colonial regime in North America, is illegitimate. What, however, if the government is not perceived by the vast majority of its citizens as illegitimate? Instead, what happens when a heavily-armed populace like that which exists in the United States today is also one that sees its government as mostly an important, stabilizing force? The combination might, in fact, create the very tyranny an armed population is supposed to prevent.
Si vis pacem, para bellum
To see how, consider how the juxtaposition of a well-armed populace with a legitimate government charged with policing and protecting that populace might operate in practice.
First, a society in which weapons are omnipresent will as a consequence be a more violent one than one where firearms are strictly regulated and controlled. As has been demonstrated by mountains of empirical data, loose gun laws that effectively allow the widespread possession of weapons – legal or otherwise – has been positively correlated with the presence of more violent crime and shooting deaths.
Moreover, this correlation – widespread gun possession with violence – is one that holds both within countries and between them. Regardless of the level of analysis, more weapons equal more violence. Sophisticated quantitative research has even shown that the old Roman motto si vis pacem, para bellum – if you desire peace then prepare for war – is not actually good advice if you want to build a durable peace with one’s enemies.
The Security Dilemma
The takeaway from all this research is that though weapons in themselves don’t create the conditions for violence, they definitely serve as an important catalyst for it when those conditions already exist.
The analogy of a can of gasoline is a good one to use here. By itself, a can of gasoline is harmless – without a flame it is inert, and since it cannot create a fire by itself it will therefore remain inert. Throw that gas on an existing flame, however, and the result will be explosive.
In an atmosphere of fear and mistrust – like that which existed between the American colonists and King George – weapons heighten both and drive each side to arm against the other – thus sustaining and reinforcing the action-reaction spiral of fear that sustains violent conflict. It is a phenomenon so well-known that academics who study violence and war have a name for it – the Security Dilemma – a situation wherein action taken by one party for purely defensive purposes is misinterpreted by another as being aggressive, leading to a defensive build-up by that frightened party which reinforces the fears and defensive efforts of the original party. Obviously, after this iteration of mutual arming neither is better off and in fact are much less secure than they were before.
Returning to the situation wherein government is still seen as legitimate but an armed public nonetheless remains fearful of crime and their fellow citizens – especially those of different class and complexion – certain predictions can be made about what might happen in such a society. Since government protection is imperfect, fearful citizens will likely vote over time to simultaneously allow themselves the right to bear any and all arms while also giving the government more and more power to crack down on crime.
You’ve got to ask yourself one question: ‘Do I feel lucky?’
The result of this process is a nightmare situation where both individual liberty and security – from other citizens and the government itself – are undermined.
Weapons in such a situation would become so ubiquitous and easy to obtain that there might very well be more weapons than people in such a society. This, in turn, would make it much easier to carry out violent crimes and massacres. The police, initially outgunned by both the citizenry and criminals, would be given more powers, arms and latitude to ‘protect’ the public – and they will aggressively use those new tools in any number of unexpected, disconcerting ways.
At the extreme, strict legal protections that once protected the citizen against the police would be weakened in a desperate effort to maintain law and order in the face of more and more fear, mistrust — and guns. Surveillance would become omnipresent and permanent. What were previously deemed illegal searches and seizures by the police would become legal and normalized. Barney Fife would, in the span of generation, be transformed into Dirty Harry.
Despite all this, crime would still remain at high levels precisely because weapons are so easily obtainable and a fearful, mistrustful citizenry would no longer support the expensive, long-term, and socially-inclusive public policies necessary to fight crime at its root. Citizens may even retreat into ethnic and class-based enclaves and fortified communities as a result. At the same time many, ironically, would begin to view the government and the police skeptically, even perhaps as the main source of the problem, as the state’s new powers are inevitably abused and civil liberties begin to be heavily restricted in the name of security.
This society, which had once been relatively unified and secure in both its liberty and security, now finds itself inexplicably in a place it had never intended to be. The individual is now neither secure nor free, and a body-politic comprised of frightened individuals can be nothing but divided against itself. Democracy and legitimate government, motivated by fear and drowned in guns, has created an outcome the vast majority of citizens could not possibly wish for and, yet, would be seemingly inescapable because that is the outcome mandated by democracy, free choice and ‘rational’ self-interest. From a notion of liberty doused in fear, mistrust, and guns comes, not surprisingly, a tyranny of insecurity and division.
If you think this dystopian scenario sounds like the contemporary United States, you wouldn’t be far off the mark.
Examples of all these developments can easily be documented in today’s America, where we face a militarized police, widespread gun possession, an out-of-control prison-industrial complex, a government that takes as its right to spy at will on any American, an epidemic of shooting deaths, a failed war on drugs that is really a war on minorities, a society that is increasingly stratified into economically-segregated enclaves, a political system frozen by partisanship, and a malignant right-wing that trucks in racist conspiracy-mongering that paints our first African-American president as not wholly legitimate or even entirely American.
How America became this way is too long a story to detail here, but suffice to say that it began in the in 1960s and 1970s when the New Deal coalition and the society it built began to fracture and break apart under the pressure of tremendous social changes wrought by that society’s very success. Citizen then turned against citizen as long-standing cultural certainties in any number of areas began to unwind and fall apart. As a consequence, the center of American life did not just not hold, it retreated into atomization and paralysis.
The great tragedy of American life today is that in the wake of abandoning a society built by a president who warned us that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself, we’ve created a culture of fear where that warning is now more true than ever before. Indeed, when an unarmed teenager can be gunned down by a frightened neighbor in the name of self-defense while walking through his own neighborhood with absolutely no legal consequences for the killer whatsoever, you know we’ve fallen a long way from what we once used to be. Ex pluribus unum, metu melti.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Mint Press News editorial policy.
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