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Yahoos With Guns Won't Fend Off Tyranny -- We Have Boring Stuff For That


A defaced poster of Zine Ben Ali during the Tunisian Revolution.

In 2011, the people of Tunisia rose up and defeated a genuine tyrant. Zine Ben Ali had held onto power for over two decades. Tunisia ranked 144th out of 167 countries in The Economist's 2010 Democracy Index, and 143 out of 173 countries in Reporters Without Borders' 2008 index of press freedom. Ben Ali "won" all of his elections with over 90 percent of the vote while his political opponents were often brutally suppressed.

Among the 178 countries studied in the 2007 Small Arms Survey, Tunisia also had the lowest rate of private firearm ownership -- dead last. Ben Ali had imposed very strict gun controls -- the strictest in the region by far -- and the result was only one privately owned firearm for every 10,000 Tunisians, according to the survey.

Neighboring Saudi Arabia had the 7th highest rate of firearm ownership in the world. Are Saudis "free"? As the the country's Wikipedia entry notes,

There are no jury trials in Saudi Arabia and courts observe few formalities. Human Rights Watch, in a 2008 report, noted that a criminal procedure code had been introduced for the first time in 2002, but it lacked some basic protections and, in any case, had been routinely ignored by judges. Those arrested are often not informed of the crime of which they are accused or given access to a lawyer and are subject to abusive treatment and torture if they do not confess. At trial, there is a presumption of guilt and the accused is often unable to examine witnesses and evidence or present a legal defense. Most trials are held in secret. 

Up and down the index, you'll find very little correlation between firearm ownership and political freedom. The Swiss have lots of guns and a healthy democracy; Omanis have lots of guns and a king.  

Here in the United States, macho, Red Dawn fantasies about patriots staving off a tyrannical government with their AR15s play an outsized role in the gun debate. But neither yahoos with assault weapons nor our troops in the field actually keep us free. Tyranny has been kept at bay in this country by factors that are far more boring than our kick-ass military or these kinds of Prepper fairy tales.  

The separation of powers, with co-equal branches of government that can check each other is the best bulwark against tyranny ever devised. Powerful elites guarding their own turf may not be a Platonic ideal of governance, but it isn't a system that's susceptible to power-grabs by power-hungry individuals.

We're also free because of the fundamental legitimacy of our system among the American public. It's true that people are distrustful of major instititions, hate Congress and revile the courts when decisions don't go their way, but dig a bit deeper and you'll find that virtually all Americans have great faith in the basic structures of our government. We like public jury trials, and the presumption of innocence. Everyone prefers an independent media not subject to prior restraint by government censors. Almost all of us agree that the legislature should pass laws, the executive should enforce them and the courts should review their constitutionality.

That legitimacy, while dull, is worth more than all the assault weapons in the world in terms of preempting the emergence of a tyrant. Because while Tea Partiers freak out about Obamacare, and progresives were rightly outraged about the 2000 election, neither group rose up in armed opposition because both of those (real or perceived) outrages were the fruits of a process that, while deeply flawed at times, we largely believe in.

In Tunisia, at the end, they no longer consented to be governed by Ben Ali. They had few guns, but they had the strength of will, and the support of the democratic world in their favor.