What's So Funny About Armed Revolution?

There are days I wonder if the internet connects me to another, parallel universe, where the last three centuries of Earth's history played out much differently.

Josh Kraushaar of The Politico posted a snide little piece a few days back suggesting that Florida Senate candidate Marco Rubio made a "questionable comparison" when he suggested that the Iranians would benefit from having the right to keep and bear arms right about now.

Hmmm.

Iranian security forces -- and some who do not even appear to be Iranian -- are killing protesters in the streets, dragging people to jail for peaceful protests, and generally behaving like police states usually do when challenged. And there is something odd or illogical about Rubio's remarks?

If Rubio had said "the Iranians would benefit from having a right to own pianos right now," that would be odd or illogical. But what's so odd or "questionable" in suggesting that a population confronting a corrupt, dishonest, thuggish government would benefit from being armed?

Perhaps in Kraushaar's universe, and that of some of his commenters, there has never been a successful armed overthrow of a tyrannical government. But on the planet where I live, there have been a number of them over the years. (And a few others where gun control has prevented those revolutions.) Perhaps when Mr. Kraushaar was taking American history, the teacher was too busy having the students flagellate themselves for slavery, the destruction of American Indian tribes, and inventing carbon dioxide to devote any time to the events of 1775-1781.

I am sure that Mr. Kraushaar isn't old enough to remember when the Romanians overthrew Nicolae Ceausescu -- some of which involved armed civilians fighting back. The Romanian Olympic pistol shooting team had a rather dramatic encounter with Ceausecu's security service, and the dispute was not resolved with words. I can remember watching news reports at the time in which rifles that must have been hidden since World War II were used by civilians to overthrow the government. Hunting rifles were also part of the civilian uprising.

Armed revolution isn't obsolete, even in an era when the weapons systems available to the government are overwhelmingly destructive.

Highly destructive weapons systems, if used in cities, kill so many innocents that such actions turn people against the government. Think about what happened at Waco in 1993 and the part it played in the Democratic loss of Congress (and, unfortunately, in provoking Timothy McVeigh). There's a limit to how much firepower you can unleash without destroying your government's own base of support.

There's another reason that armed revolution is still not only feasible, but sometimes actually necessary to overthrow a tyrannical government. Consider what happens when Mullah X tells General Y to have his troops mow down the protesters. General Y might not have a problem with this, but some of his soldiers will. Private A might sympathize with the protesters or have some moral problems with killing unarmed civilians. But what is he going to do? If he protests, or refuses orders, he will at least be court-martialed -- and maybe his commander shoots him on the spot, as an example to other soldiers. It will take a pretty courageous (or foolish) private to take a chance like this. The worst that happens if Private A follows orders is that he has some sleepless nights about what he has done.

Now, what happens if the protesters are in a position to fight back? I won't claim that the average collection of armed civilians is going to successfully defeat a military unit of comparable size. The soldiers are trained and disciplined, and they generally have better weapons than the civilians.

Still, what happens when Private A (and more than a few of his fellow soldiers) now receives orders to open fire? If he follows the repugnant orders, there is now a real risk of getting killed by an enraged civilian shooting back. If Private A perceives that the risk from the civilians is roughly comparable to the risk from the government, he is now free to change sides -- and that is what has happened in a number of successful revolutions in the last few decades. Once the civilians become dangerous, individual soldiers and entire military organizations change sides. (As eventually happened in Romania.)

This is the reason that, throughout recent history, governments scared of armed revolution take steps to disarm the civilian population. Britain passed the Firearms Act in 1920 (licensing rifles and handguns) because the cabinet was convinced that Britain was on the edge of a Bolshevik revolution. While statements made in Parliament when the bill was introduced claimed that the goal was crime control, cabinet papers declassified in 1969-70 demonstrate that the primary fear was armed revolution -- and the disarming of civilians was driven by that fear.

Armed revolution remains a viable response to tyranny -- at least if you live in the universe where armed revolution at least occasionally has succeeded in overthrowing it. (In Mr. Kraushaar's universe, maybe not!)