Iraqi Guns and Tyranny - There's been a meme floating about the weblog world lately, expressed nicely by Patrick Hayden::
If gun ownership is such an effective and important bulwark against tyranny, how is it that a country in which most households own at least one gun turns out to be one of the most oppressive dictatorships in the world?
There's several lines of answers to that which make sense, and Jane Galt summarizes them nicely:
The answers that have been given to this question are, broadly:
a) Neil McFarquar, the New York Times reporter who claimed that "nearly every household in Iraq has a gun", is wrong.
b) The public has guns, but the government has better ones
c) Gun ownership helps to secure liberty, but is not the sole condition for doing so.

c) is correct, but not very helpful. b) is also correct, but also not helpful, unless you're advocating allowing members of the American public to possess howitzers and nerve gas. But that's not why I lean towards explanation a); rather, the argument that nearly every household in Iraq has a gun (or "access to one", the refinement Noah made when readers pointed out that McFarquar couldn't possibly have done a statistically valid survey on the matter), goes against both my knowlege of history, and what I've read about the war in the hallowed pages of the Grey Lady.
Jane goes on to discuss for several paragraphs reasons why one would doubt that gun ownership is as widespread in Iraq as "a gun in every house" would suggest. I tend to agree with her reasoning, based on what little I know. But still, doubt lingers. Certainly, guns seem to be a lot more acceptable in Arab culture than in haught liberal culture in America. And it is notoriously difficult to disarm rural people, who need guns for pest control and hunting as well as for personal security. I would not be surprised to find Iraqis as well armed as Americans. Probably they are better armed in terms of assault rifles, and less well armed in terms of handguns.

This leads me to one suggestion that I have not seen yet: perhaps only certain kinds of guns are important for controlling political vermin. If we look at the self-defense movement in America, what we are fighting for here is mandatory issue of concealed carry permits. Concealed carry is the issue, in part because it allows the citizen to "ambush" a criminal. Clearly criminals would be unlikely to pick on a person toting an AK-47. But if the only guns allowed were assault rifles, then criminals would have it almost as easy as now; just look for the person without a gun, and proceed as normal. A person carrying concealed deters not only attacks against himself; but rather he protects everyone a little bit, by raising uncertainty about getting shot in the minds of all criminals. Concealed carry is a public service.

Now think about not the average "unorganized" street criminal, but rather organized crime. Does widespread gun ownership deter them? Yes, but clearly less so than individual criminals. The reason is simple: they expect an ongoing relationship with their "customer". So they will be willing to kill, not for the effect on the dead customer (he's a write off) but for the effect on other customers. It is worth it to kill, if necessary, to achieve "respect" - compliance. With or without guns, if a gang of men want to kill someone there is little he can do to stop it; any two normal men have an awesome fighting advantage against one; five thugs will beat any man, Hollywood to the contrary. With guns, any one man unknown to another can pretty easily kill him. Guns may help a customer in other respects against organized criminals - perhaps buying him time when they threaten him. And guns also constrain criminals from too blatently disrespecting a customer; he might go psycho and kill a lot of them before they take him down. For these two purposes, concealable weapons might be helpful.

But there is one more way to fight a criminal gang: form your own vigilante gang, and go to war. In this case, you want firepower. Lest you think it unrealistic, don't think of facing the mafia, but rather, showdown at the OK corral. If the criminal gang is small enough, it can be matched and fought, and beaten.

States are a form of organized crime. Like other mafias, their sustenance is taxes or drafted labor; they must extract resources or their profession is pointless. So the exact same deterrent effect applies to them as to organized crime. Note, though, that the second option - forming up the militia to fight them - is rarely very promising. The state is the gussied-up biggest gang around. Sometimes revolutions work; but usually they don't. It doesn't really matter if you think people should have private attack helicopters or not; the problem in fighting the state is not weaponry as much as organization.

States cannot easily be fought by organized violence. Thus the threat of the people getting organized will only deter the state from the most extreme excesses. But this is hardly a small thing; the worst excess of states is genocide, and genocide is always preceded by gun control. Deterring genocide has great value; in the 20th century, states genocided an average of 1.7 million people/year. Put another way: the risk of death from genocide in the 20th century was on the order of 1 in a thousand. This is roughtly 100 times greater than the (private) murder rate. (Reasoning like this is one way of getting to anarchy: can a stateless society really be that much worse than what we have now?)

I regard the anti-genocidal properties of gun rights to be sufficient to convince an honest utilitarian. No more justification is needed, but let's do it anyway.

Another thing private arms do is to check all state depredations to a mild extent, by ensuring the possibility of disorganized resistance. If you look at the only the outcome of such a contest, states appear unbeatable. David Koresh and most of his loonies are dead; most of the men who killed them walk free. Unjust? Sure. Did the state "win"? By any boolean standard, yes. Still, the mindset of those men were changed by the event. They know that some of their number got dead. And the outcry over Waco, from the rest of us, lingers on.

Note, though, that beauty of an armed society as a political institution is that you never know, for any given person, where their "line" is beyond which they snap. Murder their family, and many men will come looking for you, concealed pistol in their pants. But some will if you just hurt their family; a tiny number will snap over a parking ticket. Politicians know this; they fight back, of course, by restricting physical access to them. They don't feel secure without bodyguards, metal detectors, and barriers around their workplaces; Saddam as well as Bush. But they must contact the public, at least a little, or they risk appearing to be tyrants. This will not disturb a real tyrant like Saddam. But it will disturb a "free" people, like Americans. Surely all the security in our government disturbs me.

This is an effect, but it is hardly a guarantor of liberty. To see that, think about the psychos that shoot up abortion clinics. If you believe in abortion rights - and I do - then it should be obvious that individual resistance can be applied against "good" liberty just as easily as "bad" socialism. (If you don't like abortion as an example, then imagine environmental extremists murdering medical researchers.) Examples like these show that the effect of empowering individuals is not libertarian per se. People are willing to accept what they grow up with, even if it is unjust. Only funny radicals like me protest against social security. It is changes which are likely to draw resistance. Thus, the effect of guns on state politics is simply conservative. It makes change in any direction slower.

Guns do increase individual power; and as such, they must aid liberty at least a little. I think that people are much more likely to resist an usurpation of liberty, than a restoration of it. Nonetheless, the meaning here is clear. Guns don't cause liberty; they cause stasis. So they will help to "lock in" liberty - which is good for places that have it. They will also help to "lock in" tyranny in other places. This is the case in Iraq. As Jane said way back there: (c).

A socialist society, no matter how well armed, is not free. And a capitalist society, no matter how disarmed, is free - but it will stay capitalist only until the few men with guns realize that political power grows out of the barrels thereof. The idea that guns by themselves cause freedom is clearly wrong. If it were, there would be no need to invade Iraq - we'd just airdrop a million guns to the people.

UPDATE - some more interesting discussion of this at Unqualified Offerings, also here.

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