After the 1989 massacre of pro-democracy advocates in Tiananmen Square by the People’s Liberation Army, the NRA ran advertisements claiming that if the protesters had been armed, they could’ve defended themselves and thus prevented the anti-democracy crackdown. This kind of argument, rooted in the (correct) conviction that the ultimate recourse against tyranny is armed insurrection, has a long history both in political theory and in gun-rights advocacy.

Adopting this logic, Joe Katzman, of Winds of Change, writes that the world’s indifference to the mass violence in Zimbabwe has convinced him that gun ownership is a basic right. Over at Irregular Analysis, Anthony reacts to the essay:

Money quotes:

“The Right to Bear Arms is the only reliable way to prevent genocide in the modern world.”

“Arm Zimbabwe’s opposition. Now” ….

I need to digest this. I may have something to say on it later, I may not. What I will do, however, is invite readers to discuss the matter in the comments box. Or if that doesn’t appeal, email me and if you aren’t mental (not that any of our readers are) I’ll try to post some responses up on the site.

To start the ball rolling my gut response is; provocative idea, but no cigar [quotation has edited and reformatted].

Anthony’s right: the correct answer is “no cigar.”

1. A subpopulation is vulnerable to genocide if they are, in some significant respects, weaker than the groups who seek to eliminate them. Having state-of-the-art personal weaponry can help matters, but not if the subpopulation is dispersed, significantly outnumbered, or otherwise at the “short end” of a power asymmetry. In this respect, claims that “the right to bear arms is the only reliable way to prevent genocide” should really be understood as “in a world in which all subpopulations were secure against attack, there would be no genocide.” This is certainly true, but trivially so.

2. Security, of course, is often relative. The greater the capabilities of one side, the less secure the other side. This is Bill Wallo’s point:

But the presence of a weapon doesn’t always breed safety – sometimes it breeds an arms race because then everyone is caught in a Prisoner’s Dilemma of deciding what to carry. The guy with a knife has an advantage over the guy without one, and the guy with a gun has an advantage over both – so why not pack a gun? This sort of escalation in ostensible “defense” can have tragic results – hence the viability of societal restrictions that basically require the scaling back of the arms race between citizens.

The problem here is actually a Security Dilemma. The Security Dilemma is related to the Prisoner’s Dilemma, in that both are cases in which rational choices produce Pareto-inefficient outcomes. But unlike in the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the problem Bill points to is one of signaling: if a subpopulation acquires a boatload of weapons to defend itself against possible genocide, it may signal to the majority population that it really does have aggressive intentions against them; thus the subpopulation may “prove” that the only way to deal with it is to ethnically cleanse or exterminate it.

In fact, many instances of mass violence and genocide do involve situations when a subpopulation seeks to arm itself in order to gain political autonomy (e.g., the Bosnian Muslims, the Kurds), or when states perceive the presence of the subpopulation as a threat to national integrity and state security (e.g., the Armenians). Thus, regardless of whether or not arms procurement by a minority group is purely defensive in character, political leaders have a lot of reasons to see that activity as a justification for initiating genocide.

3. Such perverse effects are particularly important once we recognize that genocide is a subset of mass violence.

Genocide can be extremely deadly (e.g., six million Jews, around twice as many “Kulaks”) but non-genocidal mass violence kills a lot of people. Over the next two years the death toll in the Congo may well surpass that of the Holocaust [ed: it would take six years at the current death rate for more people to die in the Congo than in the Holocaust; more people have already died, though, than in the Rwandan genocide or in the Bosnian conflict]. The deaths in the Congo, however, are the consequence of a society awash in guns and warlords (thanks to factors ranging from the lucrative diamond trade to external support for rebel forces), as well as a state that no longer maintains control over violence in its territory.

Moreover, ethnic violence kills most of its victims indirectly rather than directly. The most deadly effects of such intergroup conflicts tend to stem from the displacement of people from their homes, i.e., from the secondary impact of disease, poverty, and starvation. So let’s say, for the sake of argument, that we could stop genocide by creating a world of mutually hostile subgroups armed to the teeth. Such a world would almost certainly involve a lot of intergroup violence that, in the end, would probably cost more lives than the alternative.

4. It is true that states disarm minorities as part of the process leading to genocide. The Turks began the Armenian genocide, for example, by confiscating Armenian weapons. But here I’m reminded of Michael Mann’s quip about R.J. Rummel’s “democide” argument. Rummel argues that democracy is the best check against mass killing, because democracies do not kill their own citizens. Mann counters that democracies do kill their own citizens, it just that by the time they’re actually slaughtering subpopulations they don’t look particularly democratic anymore. Saying that the right to bear arms prevents genocide is no different than saying that due process, equal protection, or freedom of association prevent genocide. If we could guarantee those rights everywhere in the world, there wouldn’t be any genocide. If we can’t guarantee them – which we can’t – then we also can’t guarantee a right to bear arms.

5. Ultimately, what all this comes down to is a tragic irony of politics. The modern state’s “monopoly on the legitimate use of force” has created historically unequalled security for many of the world’s people. Given the choice, even libertarians would probably admit that living in such “statist” societies as the US, Canada, or France is a far more attractive choice than living in the anarchy of the present-day Congo, Somalia in the early 1990s, or any other “failed state.” But it is precisely what makes the state the most effective guarantor of security and prosperity humanity has yet devised – its enormously effective control over organized violence – that also makes it capable of killing and slaughtering on an unprecedented scale.

6. Regardless, simply throwing guns at the Zimbabwean political opposition is probably not a good idea, as they would be crushed by the better-trained and better-organized government forces. If we want a policy to overthrow the government, then we should expect to train and equip an insurgency, i.e., engage in some form of intervention.


Paranthetically, I found the Rev. Donald Sensing’s article, which was trackbacked to Katzman’s post, extremely interesting. I do not, however, agree with his claim that:

Let me repeat: There is no moral difference between arming oneself for self defense and forming, arming and using a police force. Using arms for self defense is an act of protecting the sovereignty of the people.

In the kind of social-contract liberalism that I take to animate American politics, individuals do not simply delegate self-defense to the government. Individuals also agree to give up their right to be a judge in their own cases, as well as to execute the laws of nature.

As John Locke argued in the Second Treatise:

Sec. 21. To avoid this state of war (wherein there is no appeal but to heaven, and wherein every the least difference is apt to end, where there is no authority to decide between the contenders) is one great reason of men’s putting themselves into society, and quitting the state of nature: for where there is an authority, a power on earth, from which relief can be had by appeal, there the continuance of the state of war is excluded, and the controversy is decided by that power.

Of course one has the right to protect oneself, with lethal force if necessary, if confronted by an attacker. But that act of self-defense is always deeply problematic, because it puts one back into the “state of war.” In that state, there is no rule of law, no impartiality, no fairness, and hence there is an important moral difference between using arms for ones own defense and arming a police force. Put somewhat abstractly, self-defense (against another individual) protects one’s own sovereignty, not the sovereignty of “the people,” and hence is always in moral tension with the social contract that underpins civil society.

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