I’ll keep this short. I count myself among the defenders of private gun ownership, because I am an anarchist and I see utility in having a population that can challenge the state monopoly on violence if needed. Despite this, I am highly critical of right wing gun culture and it’s simple manichean narratives that cast those who support private ownership as the defenders of liberty and those who oppose private ownership as mad tyrants. Guns are tools. They’re not magic wands, and they don’t inherently signify anything about one’s feelings towards liberty.
The idea that mass private ownership of fire arms could potentially be a bulwark against tyranny is valid, but not without some caveats. It’s easy enough to understand the simple logic of “if the people are well armed then they can fight off tyrants.” I often think of anarchist resistance to Franco in the Spanish Civil War and how a well armed peasantry and proletariat might have been a deciding factor in the struggle. Spanish peasants and workers often didn’t have access to private firearms. They had to break into state armories to aquire weapons, and these weapons were often old, out dated, and poorly maintained. What if they had been as well armed as the North American population is today albeit with weapons of the time? Perhaps they wouldn’t have had to rely as much on weapons from Stalin, and maybe his goons wouldn’t have been in a position to stab them in the back as a result. We’ll never know.
The flip side that people need to consider is that private fire arms can also be used to establish tyranny. What if a majority of gun owners support a mad man hell bent on personal dictatorship? What if the majority of gun owners in Spain were supporters of Franco? What if the rich are the only people who can afford decent weapons? Sadly this was the case. The rich fascists were indeed the most likely group to be well armed in Spain, because they were on average the most wealthy and well connected. This is the dark side of private fire arms that not many of us want to broach.
Now, to be clear, I am not making an argument against private ownership. I am in favor. However, we all need to understand the duality of an armed population if we are going to be an armed population. Education is the first bulwark against tyranny. If people understand how to spot a tyrant they will be less likely to follow one. Social equality is the second. If everyone is taken care of, we won’t have a desperate mass willing to sacrifice their freedom for bread. A culture of non domination is the third. If people are socialized to have an anti authoritarian bias they will find authority repugnant. Horizontal institutions are the fourth. If we have federalism, direct democracy and free association then there won’t be a central node of power which can be used to subordinate the masses. The abolition of the state is a must if we truly want to avoid tyranny. Guns, however, are dead last. Guns are for when everything else has failed.
Unfortunately, “the people” are not always the good guys. The people could be progressive working class libertarian socialists, or they could be reactionaries, racists, and totalitarians. Unfortunately, I think we’re trending towards the latter rather than the former these days. A big factor is a simple formula people run through their minds. The formula goes like this;
Pro gun = anti tyranny, anti gun = pro tyranny, therefore the most pro gun voice is the most anti tyranny voice.
From this point of view anyone can be conned into following an authoritarian, while paradoxically believing they are on the side of liberty.
This logic is baked into the American consciousness. The narrative goes that “we’re a revolutionary country and we used our private rifle stockpiles to fight off the tyrannical monarchy.” So, anyone who wants to overthrow the government is just doing 1776 all over again, right? But if guns can be used to knock down authoritarian regimes, can they not also be used to set them up? What if that pro gun leader you’re following has you fooled? What if the obnoxious anti gun liberal is in other ways, more libertarian even if not on that one issue? After all, Mao famously said; power comes at the barrel of a gun. This was not an anti gun quote either, as some have bizarrely claimed. Mao was a guerrilla warlord who established a totalitarian state, and he did it by convincing legions of peasants to follow him by promising land and liberty. Of course after they used their guns to defeat the enemy, they then used their guns to establish a monopoly on violence.
White supremacists have a similar formula for taking power;
Step one- talk about using the gun to protect freedom.
Step two- trick people into using the gun to establish a dictatorship.
The famous white supremacist novel “The Turner Diaries” depicts a “revolution” which is kicked off by a liberal seizure of guns. In the book, the white supremacists use terrorism in order to goad the liberal state into confiscating assault rifles. The white supremacist revolutionaries then lead a revolution. What does their revolution look like? Well, they hang every black person, jew, and liberal from a street post. Not very much on the side of liberty were they? But they sure did love their guns! In this book they used the foolishness of white American gun culture to initiate their totalitarian race war. Today this book forms the basic blue print for the strategy of every right wing mass shooter in America.
The thing is, one’s position on gun ownership is not really a good litmus test for detecting be tyrants. A tyrant might very well at least initially be very supportive of private firearm ownership before they have consolidated power. Especially if they are attempting to subvert a democracy. This is because they can use their followers as a private army. Meanwhile, perhaps the democrat railing about the evil of guns might be a better friend of liberty, even if they are extremely misguided on this one subject.
Consider a boiler plate liberal president. They ban assault rifles, but nominally support unions, gay marriage, the legalization of Marijuana, separation of church and state, easy emigration/immigration, and abortion. Now consider a theocratic president that was a proponent of private fire arms and told his followers to destroy democracy with their fire arms. After doing so, this hypothetical leader then bans abortion, bans emigration and immigration (trapping you there), institutes the death penalty for the sale of Marijuana, and jails union organizers, outlaws homo sexuality of any kind, establishes Christianity as the official state religion. Which scenario gives the individual greater autonomy? It should be obvious.
To be clear, I do not support the prohibition of assault rifles, or private ownership. I do not support the democratic party either. I am merely debunking the idea that anyone who supports the prohibition must be a tyrant, and that anyone who is against is on the side of liberty. This is a simple narrative that has led many astray. Authoritarianism is a spectrum. A person can be an authoritarian in one way, and a libertarian in another. This is the case for most people. For instance, people will often support the legalization of weed, while simultaneously believing we should shoot every heroin dealer in the head without a trial. Or they might be highly critical of state violence committed by ICE, but totally fine with police using violence against tenants on a regular basis. Humans are complex and paradoxical, we are not always the rational animals we believe ourselves to be.
Next time your leader asks you to break out your rifle. Ask them, why? Look deeper than this one issue. Part of being a gun owner is respecting and acknowledging the potential misuse of weapons. Part of being a libertarian of any kind is thinking critically about how any institution can be used to affect individual autonomy in both positive and negative ways. We don’t want to inadvertently get sucked into doing the bidding of a statist, especially not when we’re doing it at the end of a gun.