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It is said the reason for the second amendment to the US constitution is protection from an oppressive government.

Should push come to shove, although hugely outnumbered in personnel numbers, the US military (under direct orders of an "oppressive government"), have much more advanced weaponry (including bombs and nuclear weaponry) than what is legally purchasable by civilians.

What arguments do proponents of the second amendment use to come to the conclusion that gun ownership helps protect the people against the government?

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    Welcome to Politics Stack Exchange. Please note that the purpose of this website is to explain politics, not debate them. This question appears to be about starting a debate about one argument in the larger gun control debate. The Stack Exchange Q&A concept is not really designed to handle discussion-oriented questions. I would recommend to post this question on a more discussion-oriented website. – Philipp Mar 24 at 17:37
  • Either ^that, or maybe try to restrict your question to ask something objective. – JJ for Transparency and Monica Mar 24 at 17:38
  • Edited the question – DMC Mar 24 at 17:47
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    @DMC it's still highly speculative. How do you qualify 'could help'? Maybe phrase it as follows: what arguments do proponents of the second amendment use to come to the conclusion that gun ownership helps protect the people against the government? – JJ for Transparency and Monica Mar 24 at 18:07
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    Thanks @JJJ edited – DMC Mar 24 at 18:21
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A "standard" argument (in the sense that I've seen it many times) is to point out how costly asymmetric insurgencies are for the "big guy", ranging from Vietnam, [Soviet] Afghanistan, etc. Or even less intense conflicts like the [Irish] Troubles. So the argument goes, the mere threat of armed insurgency is a big deterrent to government oppression. To quote from an actual example of such a debate:

“Do you really think Bubba in camo gear hiding in the forest is going to take on the U.S. military? The U.S. military has nuclear weapons!”

Who exactly do you think has stymied the U.S. in Afghanistan for 16 years? The Taliban is made up of Afghan Bubbas.

Here's an older (1994) and more elaborate example of the same idea:

Typical is the recent statement of Wayne LaPierre, the chief executive officer of the National Rifle Association:

The twentieth century provides no example of a determined populace with access to small arms having been defeated by a modem army. The Russians lost in Afghanistan, the United States lost in Vietnam, and the French lost in Indo-China. In each case, it was the poorly armed populace that beat the "modem" army.... Modem nations like Algeria, Angola, Ireland, Israel, Mozambique, and Zimbabwe only exist because guerrilla warfare can triumph over modem armies.

This is of course debatable on several levels because any such real-world examples have multiple confounding factors, e.g. the reluctance of more democratic regimes to be utterly ruthless [the press and all that] or even in the case of more ruthless regimes, external help for the insurgency. And [some] insurgents sometimes lose; see Syria.

The deterrence of tyranny by threat of armed resistance works well only against determined tyranny that would be backed by an extremely small segment of the population. Otherwise even a "medium-small" tyranny, e.g. backed by some 20% of the population (lacking moral reservations) and having the support of a regular military apparatus could well succeed by military means against an unprofessional (and/or poorly equipped) armed resistance of the majority, if we take historical ratios of losses in asymmetric conflicts as the guiding data:

Regular military forces have historically been able to disproportionately inflict casualties on insurgent forces and the populaces that support them. For example, for every German soldier killed in suppressing the Warsaw uprising, more than twenty Poles died. Similarly, in Algeria seven insurgents died for every French soldier killed. Even inept Russian forces of 1995 managed to kill more than four times the number of Chechens than they themselves lost.

History also shows that the United States military has been effective--sometimes brutally so --in crushing insurrections. Native American resistance, as well as uprisings in the Philippines, Cuba, Nicaragua, Haiti, and Mexico were all suppressed with relatively low losses among United States troops. In the attack on United States Rangers in Mogadishu in October 1993, Somali gunmen killed eighteen Americans, but at the price of hundreds of Somali lives. [...]

Perhaps the best example of how regular military forces can suppress even highly-motivated armed civilians is the Boer Wars of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. [...] During the Second Boer War the "British burned [Boer] homes, slaughtered their cattle and destroyed their crops. [The British] invented the first modem concentration camp and herded the families of Boer guerrillas into them. By destroying the Boer base of support, the British effectively ground down resistance.

It is true that insurgencies that resort to terrorism continue to vex security forces. But the weapon of choice for the terrorist is not the kind of armament the Second Amendment seeks to protect; rather, it is the bomb.

(quote from previous link, a 1995 analysis by a US Air Force colonel.)

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    @JonathanReez I believe Fizz is making the point that the insurgency lost, so you seem to be in agreement. – Jeff Lambert Mar 25 at 11:51
  • The problem with the Afghan example is in that case the US is at least trying to appear reasonable. In the putative 'monstrous government' scenario things would be a bit more violent. – Display name Mar 26 at 8:25
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    The problem with modern armed insurrections is that, once the bad government has been overthrown, no government can actually take power and rule because as soon as someone gets appointed president someone else overthrows him. The result of armed revolution is far more often a failed state than a better state. – Paul Johnson Jul 3 at 17:54
  • The Afghans resisted the USSR in a similar fashion, and they did not play nearly nice as the USA. – Ask About Monica Jul 5 at 17:22
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I'm not sure if 2A proponents regularly use this, but I've managed to find only one occasion since 1900 when armed civilians used guns against government agents and won. By "won" I mean that most of them survived and stayed out of jail, and their demands were found to be legitimate and were broadly met. This was the Battle of Athens in 1946, in which citizens (including a number of WWII veterans) accused local police of corruption, brutality and voter intimidation. An election turned into a firefight for control of the ballot boxes. The end result was that the "GI slate" of local candidates won.

A couple of other incidents bear mentioning:

  1. The Wounded Knee incident, when native Americans occupied the town of Wounded Knee after failing to indict a corrupt tribal president. They failed to dislodge him, so it wasn't a success in terms of the explicit goals of the rebels. However they mostly stayed alive and out of prison (charges against two ringleaders were dismissed due to prosecutorial misconduct), and the incident gained a great deal of national sympathy for the native Americans.

  2. The Bundy standoff in 2014, and the related occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge in 2016. The rebels were pursuing claims against the government that the courts had already repeatedly rejected. Neither action changed the situation, and led to prison terms for many of those involved, plus the death of one rebel.

See also this question on the topic.

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the US military (under direct orders of an "oppressive government"), have much more advanced weaponry (including bombs and nuclear weaponry) than what is legally purchasable by civilians.

Nuclear weapons make lousy counter-revolutionary weapons. They are not precise in their targeting and they have secondary effects beyond the blast point.

For example, let's say that there is a militia in upstate New York. The oppressive government nukes that location. For now, we'll assume that the nuclear weapon hits the group's home location and successfully wipes the group out. Now the oppressive government has to handle the fallout from that blast, which will hit Buffalo, Albany, New York City, and even more distant locations like Boston, Philadelphia, and Cleveland. Not to mention places outside the United States, like Quebec and Europe. Sample source for the distance fallout travels.

Worse, you might not hit the target:

  1. You're using an older ICBM and it just plain misses. There were reasons that the original ICBMs had nuclear warheads. They just weren't that accurate.
  2. You don't know exactly where the target is and aim at the wrong place.
  3. The actual target is the people, and people are mobile. They simply move somewhere else.

Even if you hit the target, you might also have collateral damage. Because nuclear blasts are relatively large, they will often hit multiple targets. From Wikipedia:

This is highly dependent on factors such as if one is indoors or out, the size of the explosion, the proximity to the explosion, and to a lesser degree the direction of the wind carrying fallout. Death is highly likely and radiation poisoning is almost certain if one is caught in the open with no terrain or building masking effects within a radius of 0–3 km from a 1 megaton airburst, and the 50% chance of death from the blast extends out to ~8 km from the same 1 megaton atmospheric explosion.

To highlight the variability in the real world, and the effect that being indoors can make, despite the lethal radiation and blast zone extending well past her position at Hiroshima, Akiko Takakura survived the effects of a 16 kt atomic bomb at a distance of 300 meters from the hypocenter, with only minor injuries, due mainly to her position in the lobby of the Bank of Japan, a reinforced concrete building, at the time. In contrast, the unknown person sitting outside, fully exposed, on the steps of the Sumitomo Bank, next door to the Bank of Japan, received lethal third degree burns and was then likely killed by the blast, in that order, within two seconds.

So a person inside a fallout shelter might survive almost a direct hit. Meanwhile, the innocent civilian a kilometer (or eight) away might be killed taking the trash to the curb.

There are reasons why nuclear weapons have not been used more than twice (in the same conflict). They are not terribly effective for military purposes, much less counter-insurgency. Their primary use is damage to civilian targets, which are much larger. Sure, if someone fielded an army, all together, on the surface, a nuclear weapon could devastate the army. But most armies don't concentrate to that level. Certainly an insurgent force wouldn't.

For a modern example, look at Palestine. Israel also has nukes. Yet this completely fails to deter attacks from within Palestinian territory. Because of course Israel never uses the nuclear weapons in response to attacks from Palestine. Palestine shot hundreds of rockets and mortar shells at Israel in 2018. Yet Israeli responses don't prevent future attacks. They barely stop the active attack. And there is some evidence that they encourage future recruitment among civilian survivors of the responses.

Israel/Palestine is an example of two populations that are separate. In most rebellions, the two populations are far less distinct. As a result, some elements of the military may sympathize with the rebels and be reluctant to aggressively attack. Moreover, they might share intelligence with the rebels, allowing rebels to evacuate before attacks. Meanwhile, civilians are stuck in the crossfire.

It is largely irrelevant to say that when there is actual conflict, the insurgents lose. It's certainly true. If things get to the point of actual shooting, the larger group will almost always win. The point though is that the government is generally more reluctant to engage, as they will take casualties on their way to victory.

Insurgencies have been successful in the long term. The US was founded by an insurgency. Vietnam chased out the US. Afghanistan convinced the Soviet Union to leave. Even Northern Ireland has a much more devolved government. But they do this through attrition rather than victories. Casualties and other costs of winning eventually take their toll.

  • While the OP reference to nuclear weapons was rather irrelevant, I don't think it makes sense to post an entire answer just picking on those two words. It would have been better to just point this out in a comment as a way of improving the question. The main point the OP was making was that the US government can deploy any amount of destructive power it wishes, so armed insurrection can never win by force of arms. – Paul Johnson Jul 5 at 8:28

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