23

I'm aware of the examples and debates of whether this works practically, but the theory as I understand it for the second amendment as a last defense against tyranny works as follows.

  1. Elect leaders that protect your interests. If that fails,
  2. fall back on strong institutions that can't be easily taken over by one person. If that fails,
  3. fall back on an armed populace that will ultimately decide what they want using violence. Ultimately when all else fails, hard power is directly linked with the threat of physical violence. I don't think anyone is arguing against that.

Proponents of the second amendment hold to the idea that if their guns are taken away, they no longer have power and have to simply trust that their interests will be preserved and tyranny won't take over. But other countries with liberal democracies have similar "power to the people" structures. What is maintaining this state? What is preventing small factions from rising up and taking over? And more importantly, what is the argument that this will not happen in the absence of citizen gun ownership?

Again, I'm not asking whether it works or not, I'm asking for the argument that "bearing arms" is not needed to prevent tyranny. This I have not been able to find.

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    Many comments deleted - if you'd like to answer the question please do so in an actual answer!
    – CDJB
    Sep 6, 2023 at 12:05
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    You may wish to note that removing guns from citizens has been done successfully by other countries (for example, the UK in the early 1900s), without their decline into governmental dictatorship or warlordism
    – Valorum
    Sep 6, 2023 at 18:29
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    @Valorum Tom noted that and is asking for the mechanisms at work absent weapons. Sep 7, 2023 at 7:28
  • Can you show a difference between 'What is the argument for…?' and 'Has it been said that…?' Sep 8, 2023 at 19:25

9 Answers 9

72

First things first… The original intention of the second amendment was to preserve the capacity of the individual states to easily muster militias. It was thought that a balance of power between states would make tyranny difficult to achieve; states would independently arm and then band together to oppose tyrannical rule. This is effectively what happened in the US Civil War, with individual states mustering and training militias and sending them to the Union or Confederacy. Individual citizens were allowed to retain their weapons because (a) the muskets of the time doubled as hunting weapons, and (b) muskets were fairly useless for large-scale attacks unless used en masse. It was the New England 'Minute Man' ideal, where citizens could jump out of bed, grab their muskets, organize in the town square, and march off to battle.

Speaking more generally, US politics was designed to prevent tyranny by spreading power and authority over multiple antagonistic offices. If every public official was greedy about his own power — wanting to expand his own power and prevent others from taking power away from him — it becomes extremely difficult for any tyrant wannabe to gather the kind of power needed to be an actual tyrant. The only real danger is the creation of large-scale factions, but the safeguards against those held fairly well until the beginning of mass media and the information age. The ground's a good bit rockier now…

An individual citizen with a cache of personal weapons is of almost no use against a tyranny. The only purpose of individual guns in that context is pro-tyranny or anti-tyranny terrorism: extrajudicial killings or assassinations, suppression of dissent through intimidation, compelling obedience, punishing disloyalty… The goal would be to organize a resistance (a militia) and create coordinated opposition, but an organized resistance doesn't necessarily need its members to own their own guns.

So the argument against gun ownership as a guard against tyranny is that the very idea is just an opiate. It makes people feel good and powerful to have a gun in their hand — like they are giants who can hold all evil at bay — but it's functionally useless for that purpose, and opens the door to all sorts of derived violence.

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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Politics Meta, or in Politics Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – Philipp
    Sep 7, 2023 at 7:52
  • 1
    "The only real danger is the creation of large-scale factions, but the safeguards against those held fairly well until the beginning of mass media and the information age." Is that really the case? I was under the impression that US politics devolved into a two-party system remarkably quickly, and obviously against the wishes of the founding father. Is one of two large parties covering the country not considered a "large-scale faction"?
    – Muzer
    Sep 8, 2023 at 10:44
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    @Muzer: Parties are not generally what Madison would have considered factions. In Federalist 10, a faction is loosely defined as "a number of citizens [...] who are united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest, adversed to the rights of other citizens, or to the permanent and aggregate interests of the community." That 'adversed to...' clause is key; it implies a group that is violent, strident, or otherwise disruptive of the kind of peaceful, rational political deliberation Madison was after. Sep 8, 2023 at 15:01
  • @Muzer: interest groups are normal and natural; communities and groups of every sort have collective rights, liberties, and interests that they want to advance and support, and healthy political parties gain support by keying into those local interests. It's common in healthy parties for representatives to be on opposite sides of issues, because different representatives have different constituents with different interests. But factions don't allow internal divisions. factions are driven to impose their interests without discussion or compromise. Sep 8, 2023 at 15:11
33

The arguments are really simple:

  1. There are plenty of countries that are democracies that have strict gun control that have not been overtaken by tyranny. In fact all democracies apart from America have significant gun control. Clearly "freedom to bear arms" is not actually necessary to prevent tyranny.
  2. Even if there were some theoretical chance that gun ownership would prevent tyranny, lack of gun control causes the unnecessary deaths of thousands of people every year, including many children who die in school shootings. These very real deaths outweigh any theoretical arguments about government control.
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  • Comments have been moved to chat; please do not continue the discussion here. Before posting a comment below this one, please review the purposes of comments. Comments that do not request clarification or suggest improvements usually belong as an answer, on Politics Meta, or in Politics Chat. Comments continuing discussion may be removed.
    – CDJB
    Sep 6, 2023 at 6:05
  • This answers ignores deaths that happen during a transition to tyranny, which can be numbered in the hundreds of thousands, vastly outshadowing deaths from gun violence. Sep 10, 2023 at 18:29
  • There is a chat set up for discussion, see above. I will not be changing the answer as a result if this because the number of deaths resulting from a transition to tyrrany that does not happen is zero. Sep 10, 2023 at 18:41
16

The Vote

The first and foremost weapon against tyranny is the vote.

The knowledge that abusing power means losing power at the next election will discourage most wannabe tyrants.

But more is needed for this to work.

Respect for the law

If a political leader says "Screw democracy, I'm not stepping down." the people around them must say "No. I'm not obeying you after your term is over." They must be confident that almost everybody else will say the same thing.

If a military leader says "Screw democracy, I control the guns.", their subordinates must refuse their orders. They must be able to trust that the only gun the leader really controls is their own sidearm.

But respect for the law is important in another context. If a politician is caught breaking the law, the voters must stop voting for them. If a political party has several bad apples, stop voting for that party. This is the only way to keep them honest. (Note to Americans: You have more than two parties. Just saying)

If voters let politicians get away with minor crimes, they will commit greater ones.

Freedom of the press

If a leader does something the voters would not like, it is important that the voters learn about it.

This is the mission of the Media. Exposing the misdeeds of the powerful is their contribution to keeping the system working.

Laws like the Freedom of Information Act are important. Government secrets are BAD for democracy. Whenever somebody talks about "National Security" there is a very good chance they are actually covering up something the voters would not like.

Media these days means more than it used to. There is still TV and newspapers, but in addition individuals can make contributions through blogs, vlogs or similar.

Respect for the truth

This section is the weakest link in most democracies.

There is an awful lot of lies around. Politicians lie. Media lie. It can be very hard to sort out the truth in all this noise.

Most importantly, people must stop believing everything they hear. Just because the politician you already like says something, doesn't mean that it is true.

Check your facts. This can be hard, but if you aren't certain, at least don't repeat rumors.

Then people must use their main weapon, the vote. If politicians lie, stop voting for them. If media lies, stop watching/reading them.

As I said, this is where most democracies struggle the most. Please do your part to help your country. Vote well.

Separation of powers

Americans are fond of pointing out how separation of powers protects them against tyranny. There is some truth to that. During the Trump term, we saw several times how the other powers stepped up and stopped him one way or another. Good work! I gained a lot of respect for SOP in those years.

Nevertheless, I would like to claim that if the system needs SOP to be stable, it is too fragile in the first place. It is a good last resort, but it shouldn't be necessary.

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    Thank you, this answer seems to best understand my question and best provide the answer. (And maybe from an actual European?) It seems three of the arguments you list here are what I might see as "constitutional" and two of them as "cultural". Both fill in the blank for "in my country we don't need armed citizens because we have _____."
    – Tom
    Sep 7, 2023 at 1:57
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    @Tom I am Norwegian. Sep 7, 2023 at 8:00
16

How is tyranny avoided in countries with gun control?

People in that country support democracy, and that includes a majority of the generals and soldiers who have the weaponry to overthrow the democracy if they chose.

If a President who lost an election ordered the army to gun down the opposition party, they'd (probably) refuse. Similarly, if the leader of the armed forces declared that he wanted to overthrow the government and install himself as leader, his subordinates would (probably) refuse.

If the people lose faith in democracy, this system might fail, but that could happen in a country with no gun control too.

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    In fact one might mention that is precisely what Gen. Milley did in the US, telling Trump to take a long walk off a short pier when bringing in the army was suggested to quell civil disturbances. Sep 5, 2023 at 23:39
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But other countries with liberal democracies have similar "power to the people" structures. What is maintaining this state? What is preventing small factions from rising up and taking over? And more importantly, what is the argument that this will not happen in the absence of citizen gun ownership?

This collection of questions really brings up a line of inquiry that won't fit in a comment, but you're looking at "state formation", "pluralism", and the state monopoly on violence.

Normally the answer to "What is preventing small factions from rising up and taking over?" is "the state monopoly on violence": if you try a coup, you encounter a superior force which takes it back.

The next question is "so, given that superior force, what's stopping them from taking over?", and you're looking at the classic military coup. Solutions for addressing that usually involve splitting up the military, police and security services such that they act as separate factions. It is then much rarer for them to all cooperate to overthrow the rule of law.

Underpinning all of this is the centrality of legal fairness as the means of arbitrating between interest groups, including those that aren't armed but instead control production, infrastructure, property etc. People support the liberal state regardless of the detail of which party faction controls it, because the state protects them fairly in a way which autocracy won't.

It should be noted that an individual with a gun is not going to last against the state. Resistance/insurgency is going to involve factions. The word for an armed political faction that's outside the rule of law is "terrorist". Well, until they win and get to rewrite history. And winning requires a very large amount of political support. Which, if you're in a democracy, is much more effectively used peacefully.

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    I think the key phrase here is "superior force". The phrase "monopoly on violence", taken literally, would mean that nobody else has any recourse to violence, which is exactly what 2nd Amendment advocates claim to be rallying against; but the reality is that private gun ownership is insufficient recourse against the state, so doesn't effectively change the "monopoly" being talked about.
    – IMSoP
    Sep 5, 2023 at 13:25
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    I don't think the OP is asking about a coup. They're worried that the elected officials will band together and become a tyranny. E.g. Hitler and Putin were both elected democratically, and many people worried that Trump had similar visions.
    – Barmar
    Sep 5, 2023 at 14:14
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    @Barmar all those still count as "coup", by staying in power through extralegal means; a coup by the current rulers may also be called an "autogolpe". Carrying out an autogolpe incurs the same questions about police and military loyalty. Are there good examples of popular non-elite insurgency against an autogolpe?
    – pjc50
    Sep 5, 2023 at 15:10
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    "terrorist" is not the word for "an armed political faction that's outside the rule of law", despite that word being oft used in propaganda by opposing governments. "Terrorist" means someone, outside the law, who seeks to create terror as a political tool (or creates terror for terror's sake). In contrast to sabotage, despite both often using similar methods. The word for members of armed political factions outside the rule of law are insurgents if the armed faction is seeking to overthrow the existing government, "rebels" or "resistance" whether armed or unarmed, or vigilantes if
    – Jamin Grey
    Sep 6, 2023 at 2:20
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    they are merely seeking to protect themselves and their neighborhood from perceived threats if it is perceived the government is failing to do so. Armed factions operating outside the rule of law can also be smiled on by the government, and can even be state-approved terrorists operating within that same state, outside the rule of law. Terrorists don't have to be rebels, armed rebels don't have to be terrorists, and rebels don't even have to be armed. ('Armed factions' may overlap with the term "Militants" or "Paramilitary" depending on how they are organized and what their methods are)
    – Jamin Grey
    Sep 6, 2023 at 2:20
6
  1. Elect leaders that protect your interests. If that fails, 2) fall back on strong institutions that can't be easily taken over by one person. If that fails, 3) fall back on an armed populace that will ultimately decide what they want using violence. Ultimately when all else fails, hard power is directly linked with the threat of physical violence. I don't think anyone is arguing against that.

First of all that entire argument has it backwards. Like 1) it almost doesn't matter how people got into power, what matters is what they do and can do with it and whether there are any ways to stop them if the people don't consent. So the idea of putting ones trust in "leaders" is already tyrannical.

In an ideal (representative) democracy there are no leaders and people holding office would not be considered leaders or to hold any intrinsic power by themselves. All power that they have comes from the people and I don't mean that in a spiritual sense or by means of elections (though that might be a factor in expressing that), but in the sense that it is the people who follow or refuse their orders, so it's only when the interests of the people and the leaders align that they posses any form of power.

So if the population goes on a general strike, the government would be completely powerless.

Same goes for 2) strong institutions which hold intrinsic power. If they are no longer in need of the consent of the people and accountable to them, then you have a sort of systemic tyranny already. And a rivalry between institutions is a dangerous game to play because the most likely outcome is that 1 will win or that they conspire and either grant each other niche tyranny, which doesn't prevent tyranny but just increases the number of tyrants. Or they could even work together and against the people as they hold more power in fewer hands already.

Like at the time when the idea was conceived that was still probably some form of progress to have multiple tyrants that can be played against each other over one that is all-powerful, but if you've got the choice no tyrant is actually still better than more tyrants.

And 3) individual gun owners are probably the most apparent form of tyranny. Seriously do people actually expect that a tyrannic government sends them a nice invitation for an ordered armed brawl under fair conditions? Or that gun violence will happen in official duels?

No if you individualize than the individual gun owner will decide what's right and what's wrong with no interaction with other people, which is the purest form of tyranny. Also people with bigger guns, better training or just the element of surprise will have more power that is unrelated to consent or the strength of their actual argument, again very tyrannic. Not to mention that while they might lack the strength to impose a new order they might nonetheless through terrorism force the collapse of the old order. Like the police can't investigate every murder if there are too many of them, so you end up with a situation of lawlessness and the rule of criminal syndicates, while the police is busy solving petty crimes. Which makes both the criminal and the official institutions kinda tyrannic and outside of them it's still a situation of hostility rather than the rule of law.

And if you organize resistance, then it's actually not as easy as it sounds, but also it's not even a safe bet that this organization, though it may happen, is a force for good. Like instead of organizing a militia to overthrow the government and restore democracy, they might actually bond behind a leader and install a tyrannic dictatorship, rather than rebelling against the government at all, they might even drink the kool-aid and purge a scapegoat minority. Not even that unlikely if a system fails to serve all, it might focus on serving a majority meaning minority groups are the first to notice that failure and their vocal dissent against an actual injustice and potentially existential danger can be framed as an us vs them narrative. Or they could form some mob or kleptocracy where factions steal from unfactioned groups and try to assert dominance. So it could end up in organized crime either developing into a system of competing warlords or a new but more authoritarian government.

And that's before you contemplate that the original idea is somewhat older than official professional police and military forces and involves the idea of militias that is armies that are organized when necessary out of regular citizens with their guns, which are either stored at home or at some central depot.

Similar to medieval armies where the lord would simply ask peasants into duty and they either took their tools as weapons or were supplied with spears or whatnot.

Though as that concept has long been abandoned and the internal and external protection has been relegated to the police and military organizing an armed rebellion against them has become a lot more difficult and is likely less successful.

So probably the more effective means of a democracy to strike back is economic equality. If the state takes most of it's power from the economic sector and that comes down mostly to the contributions by loads of citizens rather than a selected few, than all they'd need to do is not contribute. They might on top of that create some havoc and show their violent resistance to up the cost, but even if they can't win with that, the state will definitely lose either way as a worker on strike doesn't work and a dead one doesn't work either. So as no police and military can maintain their power and arsenal without a capable economy providing them, there's some level of dependency that will show sooner or later.

So unless you have a government that doesn't rely on it's citizens all they have to do is voice their dissent to decrease any power that a government has by a major factor. They might try to overpower that in the short run, but it will only get worse in the long run.

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    "all they have to do is voice their dissent to decrease any power that a government has by a major factor." That is one of the most naive and inaccurate statements I have ever read. Sep 5, 2023 at 22:59
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I thought this was a question about how an unarmed populace would be able to overthrow their corrupt government; but the question seems to shift halfway through, instead asking how small uprisings are held back by an armed populace.

Edit: I suspect the distinction here is where on the timeline you are. Are the tyrants still on the road to grabbing power, or have they established it already? Anyway, this answer addresses both scenarios.

The answer to the latter is that both the "good" guys and the "bad" guys are part of "the populace", and will have equal access to firearms. Introducing firearms into the populace does not mitigate or prevent the conflict, it just makes it more deadly from both ends. There is no reasonable method of ensuring that "only the good guys" get the firearms that is not ripe for obvious abuse of defining what is "good".

The answer to the former, which I still suspect is part of your question based on what you bring up; is that access to firearms is not a binary switch between being capable or incapable of revolting against an oppressive government.

The only difference that firearms make is the ability to act on a shorter trigger (pun not intended but oddly appropriate). Having them (or not) does not somehow motivate the populace differently.
Take the example of the French protests relating to the increased retirement age. Without firearms, they significantly shut down the country for an extended period. Strikes were everywhere. Public services were disrupted. Streets were burning. The people are not impotent just because they don't have a gun.

Furthermore, in the age of communication the more peaceful side of the conflict tends to win the long term PR war. Even if they have the guns, the government is not able to gun down an unarmed protest.
This is relevant to consider. Once the people know this fact, unarmed people can confidently start wearing the "you don't shoot unarmed people" rule as armor against an armed opponent, because they simply cannot use those firearms anyway.

In a way, this answer is the same as the one I gave before: both sides equally lose access to the ability to use firearms. In the first case, both sides equally lost access to firearms. In the second case, one side has lost access to firearms and the other side is strongly bound to not use firearms against an unarmed opponent.

The conflict, in origin, motivation and struggle remains the same in either case. But the amount of human death and carnage significantly lowers on both ends.


As to the somewhat remaining caveat of an armed government that has no qualms about firing at an unarmed populace and the negative PR that it generates: places like these exist but they are under heavy diplomatic strain with other nations. That strain is a great demotivator as there are significant benefits to opening diplomatic relations (alliances, commerce, ...) but yes, such an environment is not inherently preventable or always easily solved.

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    As a remark, both China and US have a history of gunning down unarmed protestors, but I wouldn't call them "under heavy diplomatic strain". Perks of being superpower, eh? Saudis are not that "strained" either for that matter, and they've done way worse.
    – Dan M.
    Sep 6, 2023 at 15:51
  • @DanM.: Cases have happened, but it is not being done repetitively and with reckless abandon. So yes, you're right, but I was focusing more on it generally being something that you strongly want to avoid. I'll see if I can rephrase for clarity on that point.
    – Flater
    Sep 6, 2023 at 22:43
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..., I'm asking for the argument that "bearing arms" is not needed to prevent tyranny.

First, a definition of tyranny.

tyranny: arbitrary or unrestrained exercise of power; despotic abuse of authority.

For the United States, that means that strict compliance with the Constitution in order to prevent the arbitrary exercise of power is all that is needed.

Alexander Hamilton, in Federalist 33, wrote,

If the federal government should overpass the just bounds of its authority and make a tyrannical use of its powers, the people, whose creature it is, must appeal to the standard they have formed, and take such measures to redress the injury done to the Constitution as the exigency may suggest and prudence justify.

Unfortunately, misinterpretation of the Constitution began early and often such that the United States has been a tyranny since at least 1822 when President Monroe decided that the power of laying and collecting taxes "to pay the debts and provide for the common defence and general welfare" was the sole authority for making appropriations. Or, generally, that the powers assigned to Congress were legislative powers. This, despite the eighteenth clause of Article I, Section 8, identifying the foregoing powers as governmental powers, that is, "powers vested by this constitution in the government of the United States".

Three years earlier, Chief Justice John Marshall, in McCulloch v. Maryland, 17 U.S. 316 (1819), referring to the eighteenth clause wrote, "Congress shall have power 'to make all laws which shall be necessary and proper to carry into execution' the powers of the Government." [1] Always referring to the foregoing powers as governmental powers and never as legislative powers.

Marshall also wrote: [2]

Should Congress, in the execution of its powers, adopt measures which are prohibited by the Constitution, or should Congress, under the pretext of executing its powers, pass laws for the accomplishment of objects not intrusted to the Government, it would become the painful duty of this tribunal, should a case requiring such a decision come before it, to say that such an act was not the law of the land.

Later justices fell into the same trap as Hamilton [3] and Monroe in believing that powers assigned to Congress are legislative powers rather than only legislative powers (e.g., the eighteenth clause) are vested in Congress. The failure of the Court to overturn those acts when appealed resulted in an increasing disconnect from the Constitution leading to more tyranny.

In particular, the interpretation of the extent of the governmental powers depends upon the recognition they are, in fact, governmental powers. For example, the power "to regulate commerce, etc." goes from nearly anything Congress wants that may involve more than one state to "to put in good order the conduct of business, etc." The use of "regulate" in the latter sense is the same as the Second Amendment's "well-regulated".


1 at 418.
2 at 423.
3 Federalist 33.

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    This feels like a fascinating answer ... to a completely different question.
    – IMSoP
    Sep 5, 2023 at 16:47
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    Actually, I think that "Strict compliance with the Constitution" is the best answer to the actual question as it was asked. The others all seem to be gun control advocates seizing the opportunity to argue and pontificate about how unnecessary they believe guns are. Sep 5, 2023 at 22:55
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    @MichaelHall The question as asked explicitly compares countries with entirely different constitutional systems. Are you saying that the answer to "What is the alternative to gun control?" Is "Every country on Earth adopts the US Constitution (except for the 2nd Amendment) and follows it to the letter"?
    – IMSoP
    Sep 6, 2023 at 6:39
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    There's also something peculiarly self-defeating about the logic in this answer: on the one hand, "strict compliance with the Constitution ... is all that is needed"; but on the other hand, the Constitution has failed to prevent tyranny (in your definition), so evidently it wasn't enough, with or without the 2nd Amendment.
    – IMSoP
    Sep 6, 2023 at 8:15
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Tradition!

And inertia. And because most people have more to lose by the status quo evaporating.

In a long standing democracy, in practice, you end up with a lot of powerful people, with interests that don't align. You end up with a lot of factions, whose interests don't align. And you end up with a generally stable state - laws might change, but fundamentals, such as your rights to your property and not to be randomly executed are maintained.

So, hopefully, you end up with a sort of dynamic stability - the vast majority of the populace would do worse if a dictator got into power, including the powerful people around them. Dictators tend to come with increased violence - you, as a fabulously wealthy plutocrat, could roll the dice, and try and stage a coup. But, you'd have a large contingent of the population whose lives will get significantly worse under your rule, including bits of the army, who, when ordered to go suppress the angry mob outside, would hopefully tell you where to stuff it.

This, however, requires the population to see their lives as comfortable and meaningful. If you're working towards building a great nation, and see the current state as fair and reasonable, you're less likely to be swayed by a wannabe dictator, because you have a lot to lose.

The sort of assumption is you need at least 50% of the army to back you. You also ideally need power brokers in current senior positions, media, etc, etc.

If more of these people, and more of the army, feel that for either ideological reasons or pragmatic ones, the status quo is not worth collapsing, then things will continue.

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