Are Small Arms Really the Antidote to a Tyrannical Government?

Gun ownership is the only thing that stands between us innocent citizens and a government with the potential to turn tyrannical at any moment—or so the gun lobby would have you believe.

As the argument usually goes, the citizenry needs access to semi-automatic and automatic weapons in order to protect itself if the government decides to violently subjugate its own people. But does this logic really ring true in our modern age? That is, what difference would some small arms do against a modern military?

So you have some AK-47s and AR-15s? Modern militaries possess tanks, jet fighters, body armor, unmanned surveillance and attack vehicles (UAVs), state-of-the-art training, an extensive and integrated virtual network, nukes and various other weapons of mass destruction.

Now in light of this, what good are these small arms again? Some may argue that small arms would be enough to cause a nuisance against a modern military and force it to either surrender or come to the negotiating table. They may cite the Afghan insurgencies against the USSR and current one against NATO as examples. But these were both occupations.

When a regime is fending for its survival and/or combatting its own populace, small arms usually amount to zilch. Take the cases of the recent Libyan and Syrian civil wars. It wasn’t until NATO airpower was introduced in the former situation that the rebels were able to match and overpower the Gaddafi regime.

Another question that arises from this argument is if the pro-gun lobby also argues that criminals will always get their hands on illicit weaponry because of the black market, wouldn’t this hold even more true for a civil war and insurgency? That is, even if the government banned all semi-automatic and automatic weaponry, wouldn’t insurgents still be able to easily get its hands on such weaponry through the black market, according to its earlier logic?

This argument also ignores the role other states would play in such a situation. Chances are, as in most civil wars, others states would intervene, with their own modern militaries, on the side of the insurgency, as often happens in most civil wars.

The main fallacy of this entire argument is the idea that our liberties are only safeguarded through guns and violence. There are much more important aspects to defending against tyranny than an armed citizenry.

Our divided government and its constitution make it difficult for one faction to gain power over the entire nation or for a couple of factions of colluding together in tyrannical ways. For, as they outlined in the Federalist Papers, this is what American founders like James Madison and Alexander Hamilton feared more so than some ill-defined, ominous government. Rather, it was the threat of a faction or factions in society taking over the helm of government and forcing their will upon others that concerned these men. That is why our government is designed in such a way to prevent this from happening.

Another safeguard against a factional coup d’état is our thriving civil society. Nonprofit organizations, the press, and other powerful private entities all work as checks against government power.

But probably the most important to preventing tyranny is the existence of an active citizenry with an anti-tyrannical and pro-liberty strain in its culture. For the most part, we possess this but we’ve been slacking lately—for example with certain provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act and the legal haze that UAVs operate in.

The key to preventing tyranny lies more in this than it does in the magazine of an AR-15.