Gun Control, Tyranny, and Failed States

The Newtown, Connecticut school massacre predictably and rightly rekindled the  debate about gun control in the United States. America is truly awash in guns of all kinds. By most estimates, there are about as many guns as people in the United States. And, as The Economist notes, the shockingly high level of gun violence in America cannot solely be attributed to culture alone. Sensible reforms – such as rigorous background checks, and closure of the gun show loophole – would save many lives in the years ahead. Even so, there is a compelling global case for gun rights, and the argument is particularly important for those living with tyranny and state failure.

gun control sculpture

Sculpture by Gustavo Poyet at the Victoria and Albert Waterfront, Cape Town, South Africa. Photo credit: Joseph A. Ferris III (via Flickr, Creative Commons license).

There are rare times in human history where armed revolution is the only available option to stop unchecked tyranny. Though it is nice to wish for the universal success of non-violent protest, some despots can only be stopped with force. In some countries, it may be essential that civilians be able to access the kind of weapons that killed so many in Newtown. Those in America and other stable, democratic states too often forget that governments can be extraordinarily brutal to their own people. And this is why the subject of gun control is not black and white. Guns protect and destroy.

The current situation in Syria is a sad illustration of the complexities of gun control. Whereas arms embargos and demilitarization campaigns can reduce the likelihood of widespread insecurity, a largely benevolent state is still necessary. Early in 2011, the dictator Bashar al-Assad elected to follow in the footsteps of his father and brutally crush political dissent. Even children were tortured and killed in order to silence calls for political change. What began as a peaceful reformist movement soon transitioned into an armed effort to oust the Syrian government. Absent access to sophisticated weapons, the Syrian opposition would not be where it is today. Indeed, it is now more accurate to describe the “Syrian opposition” as a parallel government, given the diplomatic recognition it has received from over half the world’s governments.

portraits of Bashar al-Assad

Portraits of Syria’s brutal dictator, Bashir al-Assad. Photo credit: james_gordon_losangeles (via Flckr, Creative Commons license).

So, though it is distasteful for many committed gun control advocates, dangerous weapons are sometimes all that stands in the way of rampaging tyrants. It is simply naïve and foolish to believe that non-violent marches will always stop repressive governments. Nor should we place too much hope in the International Criminal Court to deter all tyrants. When peaceful people power can be effective, it should be mobilized to full effect. In other cases, armed civilians of decaying and repressive states may be the only persons able and willing to check and stop extreme state-sponsored killing. In this context, America’s National Rifle Association is right to argue that some “monsters” can only be stopped with the force of guns.

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