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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North Korea: A Peculiar Failed State

October brought heightened tensions on the Korean Peninsula. Here is the monthly summary from the influential International Crisis Group:

Tensions mounted on Korean peninsula against backdrop of rising nationalism in the region. [South Korea] 7 Oct announced deal with U.S. to extend ballistic missile system range; Pyongyang responded with claim it has missiles that could reach U.S. mainland. [North Korea] 19 Oct threatened military action against [South] if S Korean rights activists dropped propaganda leaflets in [North Korea]; activists carried out airdrop of 120,000 leaflets 22 Oct despite [South Korean] police attempts to block them, and released further 50,000 leaflets 29 Oct. Seoul commenced annual Hoguk joint military exercise 25 Oct, involving 240,000 personnel; [South Korean] satellite launch, planned for late Oct, postponed till Nov. [North Korean] Army Vice-Minister Kim Chol reportedly executed for misbehaviour during official mourning period after Kim Jong-Il’s death.

Even casual observers recognize a recurring pattern of geopolitical brinksmanship from North Korea. The DPRK, you see, is a failed state. And, particularly since the end of the Cold War (and the loss of Soviet support), North Korean rulers have sought to distract their public with externally-oriented fears.

Mass transit in Pyongyang, North Korea

Credit: Joseph A. Ferris III (Creative Commons license)

The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea is a peculiar failed state because it retains significant governmental capabilities – especially in terms of coercive force – even as it suffers from a major deficit of popular legitimacy. It is difficult to know just how unpopular the dynastic regime is. There are no formal surveys of poplitical opinion in North Korea. Nor do most citizens have very good access to independent sources of information.

We can, however, make inferences from events like those of the last month. Kim Jong-un’s government reacted so forcefully to the airdrops because of its lack of domestic legitimacy. The execution of Kim Chol also provides a glimpse of the longstanding tactics of regime survival, which precede Kim Jong-un’s rise.

In the end, there is an intense struggle underway for the hearts and minds of ordinary North Koreans. The prison camps remain for political dissidents, North Korea remains on a war footing despite the immiseration of much of its population, and the militarist regime continues its effort to suppress the free flow of information to its people.

Iran’s Political Circus Continues

Last week, Iran’s currency, the rial, lost more than 30 percent of its value against the U.S. dollar. Iran has experienced exchange rate volatility before, but last week’s drop was enough to prompt widespread protests by more than 10,000 merchants. The currency drop is just one more chapter for a political system that can best be described as circus-like.

In addition to jolting economic and security events, Iran is accustomed to a politics of illusion and mirage; political relationships are often not as they may seem on the surface. True, even established liberal democracies have moments of political surprise and subterfuge. In Iran, though, a system dominated by a council of Islamic clerics is a hall of mirrors for average citizens and expert observers alike.

To what extent are the economic policies of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad responsible for the slide in the Iranian currency? To what extent are international economic sanctions fomenting macro-economic crisis? How free is Ahmadinejad’s government to pursue its own course on domestic economic issues? How much patience will (younger) Iranians have with the supreme council of clerics? Have ruling elites over-played their hand in pushing the domestic economy to the brink over its nuclear program?

Various Iranian experts do not believe that the country is facing an imminent political revolution. These experts argue that continued exports of energy, an increasingly effective clampdown on the Internet, and the formidable coercive power of the Iranian Revolutionary guard provide the regime enough resources to survive. As in so many other cases, regime change in Iran may ultimately rest on the question of the loyalty of the government’s soldiers.