Taking Shots At History: The Gun Lobby’s Fantastical Past

The best protection against tyranny is not a populace armed to the teeth with military-grade weapons; it is a robust democracy controlled by an informed and engaged electorate participating in a process not owned lock, stock and barrel by corporate interests.

I agree that the founders did not envision of a nation full of sheep–Jefferson spoke several times of the importance of “the spirit of resistance,” though he did not say “armed resistance,”–but this has been blown far out of proportion by some of our more paranoid and militant fellow citizens who seem to believe that the founders of this country intended a citizenry constantly capable of violently overthrowing their own government.

The Constitution does speak of militias, and not just in the second amendment. In Article II, it gives the president the power to call up the militia to suppress insurrections, not start them, and the Constitution is clear that a citizen who takes up arms against the United States is guilty of treason and thus subject to execution.

And this wasn’t just an abstract idea. In 1791, in our own neck of the woods, farmers objected strenuously to Alexander Hamilton’s new excise tax on whiskey–a substance that doubled as currency west of the Alleghenies–and started a little armed rebellion. They beat up some tax collectors, burned some houses, and threatened to march on and torch Pittsburgh (for a great, fun read (tangentially, at least) about this event, pick up David Liss’ historical novel, The Whiskey Rebels. I know: you think you don’t like historical fiction. You’ll like this). President Washington (I don’t think there’s anybody more founder-ish than this guy) promptly called up the army and sent 13,000 men to Pittsburgh. Washington, himself, led the troops to Carlisle. The rebellion was snuffed out and two men were brought to Philadelphia and tried, convicted, and sentenced to hang. George pardoned them both, but his point was made: In a representative democracy, you may not always get what you want, but you get a say, and you’re not invited to overthrow the people’s government anytime you get in a snit.

Of course, I’m sure the Tea-Partiers, birthers, preppers, gun-nuts and other assorted wannabe revolutionaries will tell me this is different: This government is a tyranny–it doesn’t represent them. Oh yeah? Well, my party won a 1.5 million vote majority in House races, but somehow your party still has a stranglehold on that chamber. Whose government doesn’t represent him now? But you don’t see me oiling up my AR-15 now, do ya?

Finally, there’s this notion that tyrants are always brought down by the gun. Well, they’re not. The most successful revolutions I can think of–the ones that brought down dictatorships so entrenched we simply came to see them as intractable parts of the global reality–have, at least in my lifetime, been brought down by peaceful refusal of masses of people filled with righteousness and awesome courage who refused to cooperate with tyranny one day longer.

Think of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Think of Yeltsin and thousands of Muscovites stopping tanks from unseating Gorbachev before he could change the world forever. Think of Havel and the Velvet Revolution. Think of Cory Aquino and People Power. Think of Gandhi. And while we don’t know where it’s headed and things look dark, perhaps someday we’ll look back and say, “think of Tahrir.”

Of course violence sometimes brings down tyrants and sometimes peaceful revolutions end up with dictatorships (think of Iran and, for a while, France), but those violent revolutions often end up the same way–perhaps more often: Fulgencio Batista was a dictator. Do you prefer Fidel Castro, who followed him? Some do, but many do not. Historical examples abound.

Yes, Hitler disarmed the Germans, but as with most Hitler comparisons, this is facile–oversimplified. First, no one is proposing to ban all guns in the US, or at least no one with a chance of succeeding. Second, what evidence do we have, really, that we are facing Hitler or that our system will produce him? It has produced some poor leaders and there are dark marks on our past, but in well over 200 years, no one has come close. I retain much faith in that. Third, if you invoke the tyrants in history who disarmed their people, you must acknowledge the times people have had their gun rights limited and not found themselves crushed by dictatorships. Australia, Japan and England are examples, and their own democratic governments–governments that represented them–passed laws limiting gun ownership. They are safer for it. Safer than they were and, as we’ve been pointedly reminded lately, much safer than we are.

There is a lot of scary talk about guns and rights these days, and it does, indeed, scare me, but what scares me even more is the ignorance that sometimes informs it. This country was not founded by evangelical Christians who wanted every citizen to be able to overthrow the government. The Old West was a place of rugged individualism, but it was also one with a stratospheric murder rate in which many towns required that men check their guns at the sheriff’s office. Gun control does not always lead to tyranny and over the past century or so, the only way to defeat a bad guy with an army has not been everyone with a machine gun but, rather, the non-violent courage of determined citizens.

I think the only way to defeat people with bad gun ideas is with knowledge, organization and good ideas.

I’m going to arm myself with as many of these as I can. I encourage everyone to do the same.


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