Civilian Arms and the Prevention of Tyranny

Courtesy Wikicommons

Last week, Ben Carson unleashed a canard long roiling hard-right circles. The Holocaust, per Carson, would have been stalled, or potentially stopped, had Jews only armed themselves appropriately. This idea stands as an outshoot from a broader claim that the only thing standing between a democratic republicanism and a tyranny unabated is an armed populace. Not a free press. Not a healthy legal system balancing and buttressing claims. These are fine realities, but they’re hopeless without the backing of an armed citizenry keeping a wolfish government at bay. The First Amendment, as one of these backers once told me, is worthless without the teeth of the Second.

To be sure, this stake stands far from a fringe belief; per Rasmussen, 65 percent of Americans ascribe to this notion that their Glock prevents federal, state, and local officials from morphing into a neo-Stalinist dictatorship. (As Rasmussen found, “even a majority (57%) of those without a gun in their home hold that view.”) Far from a Tea Party, head-in-the-sand belief that, say, Obama remains a Quran-toting Muslim, or that ACORN stole both the 2008 and 2012 elections, most Americans carry this idea, whether or not they own guns.

Two years ago, I tried to detail why this claim buckled under basic examination. At the time, I compared civilian arms rates to static Freedom House scores. (Disclaimer: I’ve consulted for Freedom House in the past, though not on their “Freedom in the World” reports.) The findings were stark: with a Spearman correlation of a weak -0.33, there was little to back the notion that an armed civilian populace necessarily begat a land of the free and home of the brave. While numerous “Free” nations remained heavily armed — the US, Finland, Uruguay — so, too, did many of the nations — Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Yemen — scraping the bottom of Freedom House’s rankings.

Now, though, with Carson’s claim, the idea has roared back into mainstream rhetoric, this time on the presidential candidates’ rostrum. Looking at Freedom House’s most recent numbers, the relationship hasn’t changed. Carson’s implication remains, per the data on hand, as friable as ever. But instead of examining these static figures, I thought it might be worthwhile to pore through the data from a different angle. Instead of checking in on single years, on one-offs, what if we instead looked at trajectories? How did those most-heavily-armed nations fare in the half-decade since Freedom House’s 2010 rankings? And what about those nations whose civilians abstained from arming themselves to the teeth? (And is this all an exercise in futility, anyway, as those who claim that their automatic rifle can prevent a new, jack-booted Great Terror will almost certainly wave away any evidence that contradicts their beliefs?)

The arms numbers come from Small Arms Survey’s comprehensive examination of civilian gun rates, against the Freedom House Civil and Political Freedoms scores since 2010. Pretty basic, if makeshift, pairing. Simplicity aside, however, the findings came even more clearly than before.

Crudely, over the past five years, the greater the civilian arms rate, the less likely a country was to see its Freedom House score improve. The inverse — the lower the civilian arms rate, the higher the likelihood of improving a country’s Freedom House score — also remains true.

A couple caveats: Certain of the nations — the US, Uruguay, Finland, etc. — couldn’t improve any further than they already had. And the Small Arms Survey’s numbers, while still the best on hand, date to 2007.

That said, these remain the best, broadest metrics extant. As such, among the findings that came across:

  • Not a single nation in the top-25 for civilian arms rates saw its civil/political liberties improve, while a remarkable ten nations (including Kuwait, Bahrain, and Macedonia) saw their freedoms decline.
  • Within the top-50 for civilian arms rates, only two countries (Kosovo and Guatemala) improved, while 14 nations (including Panama, Lebanon, and Latvia) declined.
  • Among the 25 least-armed nations extant, 10 nations (including Singapore, Fiji, and Japan) improved, while only seven declined.
  • All three countries with the lowest civilian arms rates (Tunisia, Solomon Islands, and East Timor) improved their Freedom House scores.
  • Of all countries tabulated, the greatest gains in civil/political liberties came in Tunisia, which maintains the lowest civilian arms rate of any country tabulated — and a new Nobel Prize to show for it.

Below is a graph trying to capture the phenomenon — civilian arms rates along the x-axis, with the magnitude of the shift in Freedom House’s improvements/declines from 2010–2015 along the y-axis. As you’ll see, nations with a higher civilian arms rate were far likelier to see a regression in Freedom House scores:

At the risk of repetition, this reality — that the less armed a civilian populace, the more likely it would have seen its civil and political liberties improve over the past half-decade — will likely fall on deaf ears for those, like Carson, who believe the last thing standing between tyranny and freedom is their shotgun. While Yemen, the second-most-heavily armed nation extant, remains embroiled in proxy war and failed governance, and while Tunisia, with the lowest civilian arms rate, climbs toward a peaceful prosperity, Carson and his claque will continue clinging to the claim that their arms are the last, best defense of democracy, data be damned.