Armed Citizens, Revolution, and Costs

I have been trying, without success, to come up with a cogent explanation of my thoughts on firearms ownership by citizens, government tyranny, those that call for violent revolution, and the costs of police and military intervention. This post is my first attempt to lay out those thoughts in an integrated way. It was prompted by this tweet, though I had been thinking about it before.

The founders of the US thought it was so important to protect the right to keep and bear arms that they listed it in the bill of rights right after freedom of speech (which I agree is more important). It’s common to hear arguments that “only a well-regulated militia” — sometimes interpreted to be the military — is supposed to bear arms, but a review of the prior drafts of the amendment and other statements by those that drafted it makes it clear they meant the whole of the citizenry were the militia, and the constitution was never meant to be interpreted to bar law-abiding citizens the right to keep and bear arms. Recent decisions by the Supreme Court have supported this interpretation. For example, here is an early version proposed by Samuel Adams:

And that the said Constitution be never construed to authorize Congress to infringe the just liberty of the press, or the rights of conscience; or to prevent the people of the United States, who are peaceable citizens, from keeping their own arms. (citation)

Furthermore, it was thought by them that an unarmed citizenry was a citizenry destined to be ruled by tyranny. Wikipedia does a pretty good job of covering his here, but here are some choice quotes:

As civil rulers, not having their duty to the people duly before them, may attempt to tyrannize, and as the military forces which must be occasionally raised to defend our country, might pervert their power to the injury of their fellow citizens, the people are confirmed by the next article in their right to keep and bear their private arms. — Tench Coxe, 1792 (ibid.)

This may be considered as the true palladium of liberty…. The right of self defence is the first law of nature: in most governments it has been the study of rulers to confine this right within the narrowest limits possible. Wherever standing armies are kept up, and the right of the people to keep and bear arms is, under any colour or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction. In England, the people have been disarmed, generally, under the specious pretext of preserving the game : a never failing lure to bring over the landed aristocracy to support any measure, under that mask, though calculated for very different purposes. — St. George Tucker (ibid.)

Abolitionist Lysander Spooner, commenting on bills of rights, stated that the object of all bills of rights is to assert the rights of individuals against the government and that the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms was in support of the right to resist government oppression, as the only security against the tyranny of government lies in forcible resistance to injustice, for injustice will certainly be executed, unless forcibly resisted. (ibid.)

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. — Thomas Jefferson (citation)

People, even those generally sympathetic to Second Amendment rights, rightly point out that the government, with bombers, nuclear weapons, the NSA, and a large standing military could easily put down an insurrection. (Is it time for a violent revolution?). That article does a pretty good job of being realistic in evaluating the pros and cons of such a revolution. I am going to make clear that I think it’s definitely a Bad Idea. That doesn’t mean an armed citizenry is worthless. A very interesting and recent example is the Bundy Standoff and its contrast with the Ferguson unrest. Before I get going let me state that I think Bundy (aside from being a racist and generally a moron) was/is in the wrong. I in no way support his claims.

What I find fascinating is that Bundy and his well-armed supporters were able to raise the cost of the government’s intervention enough to get them to back down. The government can be viewed as a massive, powerful monolith, that doesn’t need the approval of the people to do what it wants, but that’s a mistaken view. The federal government is made of real people with consciences and scruples. Furthermore, if it loses enough public support, and support from a significant portion of the military, it may even leave itself vulnerable to being overthrown. Therefore it’s in the interests of the government and its members not to do things that will widely be perceived as pernicious and overreaching. I think the BLM and Las Vegas PD decided that shooting Bundy and his supporters over some cattle grazing on public lands would have been widely condemned. Without that resistance, I’m fairly certain the BLM would have had their way (which, to be clear, I think was right). I didn’t realize until today that the LVPD actually took steps to tone down their response to Bundy in order to avoid provoking them.

Metro officers deal with large crowds all the time, but nothing like this. The crowd included former military men and ex-cops, people with various motives, their fingers poised just above the triggers of powerful weapons. With so much firepower in so many hands, a small incident could have set off a bloodbath and left nearly two dozen officers dead.

Assist. Sheriff Joe Lombardo:”We were outgunned, outmanned and there would not have been a good result from it.”
I-Team reporter George Knapp: “A lot of scenarios could have played out that would have left a lot of dead officers.”
Assist. Sheriff Joe Lombardo: “If you just have a backfire, somebody pops a firecracker, then it’s over. We’re done. We are going to lose that battle that day.”

Metro pointedly did not allow officers to put on helmets or protective gear for fear it might be seen as a provocation. At the urging of Cliven Bundy, the crowd moved toward the BLM compound. Rhetoric grew more heated, and guns were pointed at officers.

What you see there is that the Bundy protesters made the cost of a powerful, armed showing by the police higher than the police were willing to bear. Contrast that with the events during the protests in Ferguson, MO after the police shooting of Michael Brown.

Sharpshooter_facing_camera Sharpshooter aims at unarmed protesters CC BY 2.0 – Jamelle Bouie –

Ferguson_Day_6,_Picture_53Contingent of police in riot gear with military-type armored vehicles – By Loavesofbread – CC-BY-SA 4.0

The Ferguson PD had no such qualms about making a show of force, and it almost certainly agitated the protesters, but for a variety of reasons, most of them were not visibly armed. There’s a whole separate line of reasoning here that the protesters in Ferguson were black, and the folks at the Bundy incident were white, and that’s why the police didn’t crack down on them the same way. I buy that that had some influence, but I don’t think it nearly covers the issue. The quote from LVPD above should make that clear.

What this comes down to, for me, is that even though private ownership of firearms (especially “military-type” firearms that “nobody needs” — which were used by Bundy’s supporters) may not be sufficient for an ex-nihilo overthrow of the government, that private ownership is nonetheless essential to raising the cost of abuse of power by the government.

But in other civilized countries…

There’s another common rebuttal that other countries don’t have the degree of allowed firearm ownership that the USA has, and yet they are able to resolve their problems democratically. All I can say to this is that there are very few democracies that have been around very long on a historical time scale, and we will have to wait and see. Certainly in places like England, which have slowly had their firearms rights (once considered inviolable natural rights) taken away, people have lost much of not only the ability but the right to self-defense. (See Guns and Violence: The English Experience for a fascinating history.) That’s something I’d like to see the USA avoid.

3 thoughts on “Armed Citizens, Revolution, and Costs

  1. Les Orchard

    My thinking is that the political, racial, and socio-economic issues make way more of a difference in Bundy vs Ferguson than the presence of weapons.

    Those folks at Bundy’s ranch were on the right side of privilege. The guns were basically props; the real weapons were politics. I doubt the authorities were as afraid of an exchange of gunfire as they were of the fallout afterward. Those militia folks knew they’d make for terrible press and horrible politics if anyone on either side got shot. Like you wrote, “shooting Bundy and his supporters over some cattle grazing on public lands would have been widely condemned”.

    Somehow, I don’t think the Founding Fathers imagined American Militias would win by making the government look bad & feel uncomfortable. And yet, I think that’s all the Bundy ranch standoff accomplished. Seriously, had these folks been a real threat, they would not have been handled carefully – there would have nasty things falling on them from the sky. Or, at least, the militia would have been picked up & arrested individually once the standoff had dispersed. Politics didn’t make any of these options appealing.

    You wrote, “What I find fascinating is that Bundy and his well-armed supporters were able to raise the cost of the government’s intervention enough to get them to back down.” But, did they really back down? Months later, I don’t think Bundy has gotten much of what he wanted after the party at his ranch broke up. It got some folks’ attention and changed the conversation a bit. But, there are many ways to do that. Politics are the only thing that will change the situation, long-term.

    On the other hand, the authorities in Ferguson had no qualms about rolling up in military-style vehicles, deploying a sniper or two, and dousing a mostly unarmed crowd of protesters and apparent bystanders in backyards with less-lethal weapons. The authorities in Ferguson were better armed with politics – which are against the notion of dark skinned folks gathering in numbers with dangerous weapons. The authorities didn’t expect any significant fallout – and since then, very few of their members have seen serious repercussions.

    Could you even imagine the police response, had some of those black folks shown up openly-carrying anything close to the gear white folks brought to the protest at the Bundy ranch? My cynical guess is we’d see the deployment of teams trained to deal with urban terrorism overseas and the whole local population handled like insurgents.

    I’m not really against personal gun ownership, but I think the notion that you’re actually going to make any lasting stand against the US government with literal firepower is childish.

    To me, it’s a wish to cut (shoot?) the Gordian knot of actually having to talk to people and grind through the complex and largely unrewarding work of persuasion & compromise. It’s seeing the world as a football game of opposing sides and rooting for an absolute win. But, that’s not how you build a working civilization, and I like to say I am a member of a civilization.

    In fact, I think my whole point is this: “The federal government is made of real people with consciences and scruples. Furthermore, if it loses enough public support, and support from a significant portion of the military, it may even leave itself vulnerable to being overthrown. Therefore it’s in the interests of the government and its members not to do things that will widely be perceived as pernicious and overreaching.”

    Again, the guns are props. The real power is perception & persuasion – i.e. politics.

  2. Brock Tice Post author

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply. A few responses:

    “I’m not really against personal gun ownership, but I think the notion that you’re actually going to make any lasting stand against the US government with literal firepower is childish.”

    As alluded to in the article you linked, a prolonged stand is not really what I’m thinking of — it’s more that on a per-incident basis, an armed population has the ability to make abuse by the police and/or military much more costly in terms of lives and appearances than an unarmed population. I think that was poorly articulated in my write-up.

    As to the Bundy standoff, Bundy lost a lot of standing with the public after people saw that he was at best eccentric and backwards, and at worst, off his rocker. He lost pretty much all of the support from the public in general and elected officials in particular.

    What they won was the standoff that day. He and his people stayed on that land. If there were some other objective on the part of the government, like capturing a vocal critical of the government (or Japanese-American citizens to be rounded up, etc), that could have bought another day that such a person would remain free, maybe have the chance to escape, etc.

    As to Ferguson, I fear that you’re right, but I think it’s hard to say. If hundreds of protesters showed up with rifles, vs tens of police, do you not think that would have given the police more pause? If the national guard or military were called in sooner and more aggressively because of such a presence, what do you think the public reaction would have been? As it was/is, the police feel empowered with their military gear to treat the protesters like animals, to crack down on protests at the drop of a soda can against a barricade.

    You have a sensible, nuanced way of thinking about the whole thing that makes a lot of sense to me, but I still see that a public capable of self-defense can quickly and easily raise the cost of governmental abuse as compared with a public that is not. As with everything from pepper spray to nuclear weapons, it’s often not about what violence one does employ, but what violence one is capable of employing that changes the outcome of a particular confrontation. And capabilities are certainly preferable to actions in these cases. In most of those quotes I pulled above (Jefferson aside), the point is that the government should be sure that the public is capable of producing resistance, not that the public should attempt to overthrow the government at the drop of a hat.

    Without more examples, it’s pretty difficult to say, but I’ll keep looking for more.

  3. Les+Orchard

    My thing is that, these days, it’s a political decision to pretend a group of men with conventional personal weapons as viable resistance. The authorities at the Bundy ranch were capable of so much more force – it was only political consequences that stopped them.

    The more that folks even entertain the notion that armed rebellion could ever be an effective, long-term option – the less they have to think about what they could do to affect change that involves long, boring, non-violent conversations as an alternative to shooting their neighbors.

    An armed citizenry can raise the cost of government abuse, but only so far. At some point, some State official will consider the cost within budget and decide it’s worth going on a spending spree. At that point, I guarantee even armed citizens will be unable to outspend the government in which they should have been active adult participants the whole time.

    I guess I can see the benefit of having a threshold that gives petty abusers pause. But how does that work? Can I use my handgun or AK-47 to resist a cop asserting asset forfeiture on my wallet during a highway stop? How about repelling a SWAT team who trolls called on me while I was streaming a game on Twitch?

    In the case of rounding up Japanese-Americans, I could almost guarantee you that armed resistance on their part during wartime would have led to them treated as confirmed enemies on our own soil. Not saying that putting Americans in camps was in any way right, but shooting back would have been so much worse. I’m thinking genocide worse.

    And, in Ferguson, I’d assume that the appearance of hundreds of armed protestors in sympathy with the locals would have led to a disproportionate escalation after a pause. What would those protestors look like, and how would their politics fare?

    So, why take the guns seriously? They’re really just toys that the State humor as dangerous when you’ve formed a protest. Why don’t we encourage each other to explore political means to cause change that don’t involve periodic State-tolerated armed tantrums?

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