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The Government and Your Guns


We’re in the grip of twin madnesses, and those who have overcome one of them can still be completely controlled by the other.

The first madness is the idea that spending a trillion dollars a year on weaponry and war preparations makes us safer, that 1,000 military bases abroad protect rather than provoke, that nuclear arsenals discourage terrorism, that drones have civilized the act of blowing up somebody’s house, that the Pentagon’s business really is “defense.”

Why should our 4% of humanity need more weaponry than the rest of the world for protection?  We can’t be inherently that unlikable.  We’re caught in a vicious cycle.  Our militarism encourages wars, and the wars justify more militarism.  The weapons makers that the Pentagon keeps in business arm the rest of the world as well.  Some imagine that even this weapons proliferation makes us safer.  Meanwhile, back in reality, we’re draining our budget, hollowing out our representative government, poisoning our environment, and escalating completely avoidable conflicts.

From libertarians to liberals, there are large numbers of Americans who can say to Dwight Eisenhower and Martin Luther King alike: you’re right, the guns are not helping.

There is a second madness, however.  It is a madness that appeals to those skeptical of governments.  It is attractive to those interested in radical change, popular power, and protection of civil liberties.  This is the madness that says: We need our personal supplies of guns to protect us from the government.

If our loyalties are with individual rights, popular revolution, and resistance to the corrupt fascistic tendencies of unchecked power, it’s hard for us to question this idea.  We hesitate, thinking, “Maybe the government does want our guns.  Maybe there will come a day when we need them.”

Our hesitation brings us into common ground with the gun lobby.  “Take your guns away?” we declare indignantly.  “Oh no! We would never want to take people’s guns away.  We just want them to have the right kind of guns, the right kind of bullets, the right registrations and background checks and mental health screenings.  We want our personal militarism civilized by its own Geneva Conventions.”

This still leaves huge gaps between those who would seek to limit and control gun ownership and the NRA.  And the “reasonable gun rights” coalition can indeed point to instances of a gun being used in actual defense.  But the notion of using guns to resist or reform or overthrow the government is bizarrely out of touch with reality.

There is no correlation between personal liberties in a nation and its gun ownership.  Campaigns of resistance to tyranny are more likely to succeed, and that success is more likely to be lasting when those campaigns are nonviolent.  Milosevic was thrown out of power in Serbia, not by violence, but by nonviolent action.  In East Timor, violent resistance failed for many years before the people resorted to nonviolence and began to win.  Last year in Tunisia, with not a gun in sight (or hidden away as an implied threat either), the people overthrew a dictatorship and inspired Egyptians to do the same.  Meanwhile, Americans are so loaded down with guns that we’re killing our own children, by accident, by fits of rage and insanity — and we can’t overthrow a card table.

Are you kidding me?  If in 2000, when the U.S. Supreme Court openly stole an election, and our gun-heavy populace did nothing, if someone had predicted that our government would legalize warrantless spying, imprisonment without charge, torture, rendition, assassination, and wars fought by the CIA with flying robots before legalizing marijuana, who wouldn’t have said that was crazy?  We’ve watched this being done to us.  We’ve watched our wealth being handed over to the war makers and the financiers.  We’ve bought more guns, and we’ve done nothing.  And the guns have done nothing.  And anything we could do with the guns would be counterproductive.

Violence does not work anymore, not even in the heart of a society devoted to violence.  Resistance movements here at home are hindered, not helped, by weaponry.  The government does not want your guns; it wants your obedience.  It’s not afraid of your assault weapons; it’s afraid of your noncooperation.  An abusive government has no cause for concern as long as people believe that violence is the field on which to compete.  But if we give up that mindset along with the guns, there’s no telling what might happen.  We might even fix this place up now, without waiting for the apocalypse.

David Swanson is author of War is a Lie. He lives in Virginia.

David Swanson wants you to declare peace at  His new book isWar No More: The Case for Abolition.

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