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 nine 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 United States be a stronger nation state. Here are the reasons why
- The American Second Amendment was distinctly designed to help safeguard America 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 may 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 US.
Let’s just talk basic numbers.
America has ten 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 United States 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 DC 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, Mohamed 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, Abdul Fatah 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 US, 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 the 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 Bashar 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 US.
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 United Kingdom 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, John F. Kennedy. 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 United States allow 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, America 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 pretends guns make America stronger or geopolitically more secure.
That security is something far beyond the power of a few mere guns.
This story first appeared at Geopolitics Made Super, September 2, 2015.