Liberal Democracies and Armed Insurrections: Never the Twain Shall Meet?

Jeff McMahan has an interesting article–Why Gun Control Is Not Enough–over at The Stone today (New York Times, 20 December 2012). I agree with him that gun ownership does not have the salutary political effects that its most fervent, Second Amendment-quoting advocates claim it does, even though I don’t agree with McMahan’s conclusion that ‘the United States should ban private gun ownership entirely, or almost entirely.’  In any case, in this post, I want to focus on one exceedingly curious claim that McMahan makes in response to the former Congressman Jay Dickey, Republican from Arkansas, who is quoted as saying,

We have a right to bear arms because of the threat of government taking over the freedoms we have.

In response, McMahan says:

There is, of course, a large element of fantasy in Dickey’s claim. Individuals with handguns are no match for a modern army.  It’s also a delusion to suppose that the government in a liberal democracy such as the United States could become so tyrannical that armed insurrection, rather than democratic procedures, would be the best means of constraining it.  This is not Syria; nor will it ever be.  Shortly after Dickey made his comment, people in Egypt rose against a government that had suppressed their freedom in ways far more serious than requiring them to pay for health care. Although a tiny minority of Egyptians do own guns, the protesters would not have succeeded if those guns had been brought to Tahrir Square. If the assembled citizens had been brandishing Glocks in accordance with the script favored by Second Amendment fantasists, the old regime would almost certainly still be in power and many Egyptians who’re now alive would be dead.

Why is it a ‘delusion’ to suppose that a liberal democracy could not become so tyrannical that those subject to it might consider armed insurrection a viable response? Is this a conceptual truth about liberal democracies? Why would ‘armed insurrection’ never be the ‘best means of constraining it’? And why is McMahan so confident that the US will ‘never’ be Syria? This is a prophecy, not an argument, one that does not seem to consider what might happen if this country had been subjected to more than one 9/11 attack. One of those was enough to see a crackdown on minorities, the passing of regressive legislation, the declaration of two wars, and the commission of war crimes. What would have a couple more of those have done?

McMahan’s example of the Egyptian overthrow of their government is also curious. If the insurrection in Egypt had been an armed one, the protesters would not have congregated in Tahrir Square to present themselves as sitting ducks for the Egyptian police and armed forces. Rather, they would have concentrated on other tactics: assassinations, attempts to take over or destroy government property and so on.  The Tahrir Square assemblies took place precisely because the ‘revolution’ was sought to be conducted by public, visible, attention-gathering, solidarity-generating means.  The insurrection would have been conducted very differently once armed violence was chosen as one of its modalities.

Whatever the arguments for gun control, and I think there are many excellent ones out there, including some that McMahan uses in his piece, complacency about ‘liberal democracy’ shouldn’t feature in them.

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