There are twenty kids in Newtown, Connecticut that didn’t see Christmas last year because a lone gunman strolled into their school and shot them dead. In the aftermath, Obama has just issued 23 executive orders–purportedly to address gun violence–and the right has just completely lost their shit about it. Reading this list, it is hard to see why. There isn’t really anything on it with any teeth; it’s little more than lip service. About the only one that has any real potential–and the one most likely to get crushed by a rabid Republican House–is the order for the CDC to resume research on gun violence; the last time the CDC funded any studies, they discovered that a gun in the home was 43 times more likely to be involved in the death of a household member than on an intruder. Clearly, research on guns and gun violence will not be popular among gun enthusiasts.
While I am a supporter of gun control laws, this isn’t a piece arguing in favor of or opposition to laws or regulations on the sale of or access to any weapons. I will save that for another post. This is about the argument that I keep hearing with regard to the current gun control debate, that guns “preserve our freedoms” or “keep government tyranny in check”. I take an exception to this argument because, to be blunt, it is utter bullshit. Not only does your government not give a shit whether or not you’re armed, it won’t make a whit of difference if it comes for you. Ask the Branch Davidians; they had one of the most spectacular private arsenals in recent history, a compound with a defensible main building and its own water supply, and enough bullets to last for at least 76 lifetimes. It wasn’t enough.
One of the common tropes that has been trotted out has been that Hitler confiscated all the guns. He didn’t. The Weimar Republic he replaced with the Third Reich did that, in the wake of losing WWI. Hitler actually deregulated many of the restrictions on gun ownership imposed by the previous government. Dictators don’t fear a well armed populace, because dictators rely on other means to control their people. Dictators use fear and intimidation, and they divide their populace by inducing them to turn on each other. In East Germany, the Stasi not only spied on citizens but also employed a vast network of informants; one could never be sure who, amongst ones friends and neighbors, might be on the payroll of the secret police. This anonymity meant that one had to exercise great caution and discretion when expressing thoughts or opinions, and had an immeasurably stifling effect on the populace. Likewise, Saddam Hussein employed similar measures to control his people, including random wiretaps on telephones. One could never know if a conversation was being recorded by the government, so the safest policy was to stifle any speech that could even remotely be construed as dissent or criticism. Saddam didn’t worry about an armed populace either; pre-invasion Iraq was almost as well-armed as modern America, yet Iraq was hardly a bastion of personal liberty, nor was it a case study of a government held in check by a well-armed populace.
Here in America, we don’t need to wonder whether or not the government is listening: Every phone call is tapped, every email, every chat message. Every piece of information you send over the Internet is routed to the NSA. Every phone conversation is captured by Echelon. Your cell phone can be activated by the FBI without your knowledge or consent and used to bug any conversation you have in its presence. Americans can be detained indefinitely without access to lawyers or courts, or without even having formal charges filed. American citizens can be killed by order of the President without so much as a criminal charge filed. Your right to protest is legally(?) limited to “free speech zones“–which, when I was a kid, consisted of “The United States of America”, but which are now relegated to small areas far from public events where nobody can see you. Taking a flight now requires making a bizarre choice between submitting to having nude photos taken of you or being groped by security–and that only after you’ve submitted your papers, please, and provided that you aren’t on the government’s secret list of possible terrorists. The government is talking about expanding this to trains and bus systems too. They’ve already started rolling them onto the streets to search your car while you’re driving. There is an expanding network of scanners reading and tracking your license plate. These systems can be mounted in fixed locations or attached to police cars, constantly running computer checks, conceivably building a movement database of every citizen’s car. Federal laws have gotten so complex, convoluted, and far-reaching that at least one attorney estimates every American commits an average of three felonies a day, ample ammunition for an eager federal prosecutor who has you in his sights. Police forces are eager to deploy the same drones we currently use to conduct remote controlled murder in foreign countries, albeit without the missiles–for now. Considering the record of botched police raids, in which innocents are often wounded or killed, putting more military hardware in their hands simply doesn’t bode well.
All of this is real, none of it is conjured from the fevered imagination of paranoid delusion. These aren’t things that might happen, these are things that already have, and these represent very real incursions on the personal liberty and freedoms that all Americans supposedly hold so dear. This is where we are in America today. Read that last paragraph back and ask yourself if that sounds like a country that deserves the title “land of the brave, home of the free.” In the 80’s we used to mock and/or sympathize with the Soviet citizens who had to show papers to travel, who were under constant surveillance, who lived under the constant threat of a government that could snatch them up at any time for no reason; now, we are those citizens.
And all of this happened in the country with the highest rate of gun ownership in the entire world, with nearly 90 guns for every 100 citizens. Could someone please explain to me how, exactly, with all of the tyrannical, invasive laws, policies and practices that the government has put into place–particularly in the last ten years–all this gun ownership is protecting us from tyranny and oppressive government? Because I just don’t see it. Tyrannical and oppressive policies are on the rise, right along with gun ownership. The Obama years, spurred by frenzied hyperbole about some impending crackdown on guns, have been banner years for gun dealers and manufacturers, who’ve seen record sales. For all the ridiculous conspiracy theories coming out of Sandy Hook, they don’t make any real sense–nobody has made any serious effort to confiscate guns, or even restrict access to them in the wake of any of these shootings (Obama’s 23 executive orders simply can’t be described as a gun grab by any objective, rational measure). Under the principle of cui bono, it would be way more plausible to suggest that James Holmes and Adam Lanza were working for Bushmaster or Remington, given the respective sales boosts in guns after both the Aurora and Sandy Hook shootings. To be clear, I am not actually making any such accusation, just pointing out that if anyone stood to benefit from these heinous acts, it was the gun industry.
There are a lot of arguments for gun ownership, but “protecting ourselves from tyranny” just isn’t one of them. To gun owners who want to pretend like your guns have been protecting us from oppressive, police-state laws and policies, I have bad news: You have failed miserably. About the only notable impact you’ve had on government policy is the rise of no-knock warrants, a leading cause of death in botched police raids, because no-knock warrants and the service of warrants by SWAT teams (as opposed to standard officers just showing up on the porch to ring the doorbell) has been predicated on the prevalence of guns in American society. The idea of the average citizen winning an arms race with the government is simply ridiculous, almost as much as the notion that a well-armed populace will hold its government in check. We have the most well-armed populace in the history of the world, and the government has been steam-rolling over one civil right after another for years. All these guns may be great for killing moviegoers and schoolkids, but they aren’t doing shit to preserve freedom. If any gun owners out there want to give examples of how they stopped government tyranny or preserved liberty, I’d love to hear them, but without that please, just stick to “self-defense” and “I like to shoot” arguments for guns, because this “preventing government tyranny” bullshit is just a silly, adolescent power fantasy.