On Popehat, a new contributor (Marc Randazza) posts an ungracious and inflammatory post claiming that having small arms to subvert government tyranny is not a valid reason for gun ownership. As evidence, he offers a hypothetical in which all insurgents cluster into a single city and then the American government is willing to carpet bomb the city. The leaps of logic, the outright nonsense, and the lack of historical understanding are well below par for a Popehat post.
Granting Randazza’s hypothetical triggering situation (the president abolishing the presidency, instituting Islam, and granting the government the rights to have sex with people’s wives), what would an American insurgency look like?
People and Weaponry
America is a nation of 317 million people. Presumably, the hypothetical could at least arouse 1% of the population to rebel (between the people rebelling against Islam, the people rebelling against a change in government, and the people rebelling against gun confiscation, this number would not be hard to hit). This would be 3.1 million people in itself. These insurgents would not be localized in a particular city, but distributed loosely throughout America (probably disproportionately among Military and Police ranks as those populations naturally house more aggressive individuals). The insurgents would have access to the over 357 million guns in circulation; being supplemented by off-grid milling and 3d printing. On a side note: the more progress made in 3d printing, the less realistic any gun control measures.
In order to control this, the government would have to quickly implement a police state with door-to-door confiscation (causing even more ill-will). It is hard to imagine, in Randazza’s hypothetical, that the government would have the intellectual support of the population in their crackdown (people tend not to like forced religion and government officials having sex with their wives). How many guns are unregistered and how can the government begin to manage any sort of confiscation? Imagine the mobilization that would have to occur to police hundreds of thousands of households? Who is confiscating, and are they loyal to the government?
In addition to the limitless small arms available to all insurgents, the insurgents in the military would have access to planes, tanks, and missiles. The problem with insurgents is that they are hard to identify beforehand. Maybe an F16 operator goes rogue? It only takes one (maybe his wife or sister is raped per the new government dictates). Maybe a nuclear silo is captured (maybe the security forces team does not like Islam being the new state religion)? Maybe a fuel contractor places explosives in a fuel truck (maybe the contractor longs for free elections)? This all assumes there is not a military coup in response to the change in government.
Insurgency is asymmetric warfare. Although small arms would definitely play a large role in the insurgency (especially for the common citizen insurgent), they would be supplemented by military and enthusiast tech. The citizen insurgent contingent will inspire the government insurgent contingent. The government is going to have to handle all threats simultaneously and indefinitely. In doing so, they are going to alienate their own supporters with the far-reaching and broad brush strokes needed to accomplish this (how many loyal Soviets were mistakenly executed or sent to gulags?).
Despite Randazza’s hypothetical rebellion, the insurgents probably would not take a town and barricade that town. One: they will probably not be as reckless as to present a military bombing target (unless they were sure the military would not just bomb it). Two: most people in any society are not the types to take up arms over anything (notice the lack of vigilantes in American society). Will an entire town rebel? Probably not, at least not overtly.
One further point: imagine a random town in Montana decided to rebel even without any hypothetical tyranny. Would the current administration even consider carpet bombing? In the real world, governments operate under constraints: financial, material, moral, legal, and political. The cost of carpet bombing is not just money and bombs, but also hearts and minds (local and foreign, civilian and military). Imagine what would happen if the government did carpet bomb and entire town. The entire country would come undone with rage, indignation, and seek to oust those in charge. The government might be able to get by with bombing a Waco compound or two (where those bombed can be dismissed as weirdoes), but not an entire Waco city (where outsiders can identify with those being bombed). More realistically, the government would just cut off trade until the city caves.
With decentralized locations, the insurgents would probably not operate in any unified way. If a leadership develops, it would probably operate in a very decentralized manner (providing agendas and letting insurgency cells operate independently). Attacks would probably be uncoordinated, random, and anonymous (much like other insurgencies around the globe). Insurgents probably would not even know eachother.
Government officials, and their collaborators, would probably be the subject of assassination attempts, carried out by disgruntled loners who don’t care about consequences. How can the government control this? They couldn’t even fight organized assassinations in Pablo Escobar’s Columbia where they knew who was directing them. Decentralized assassinations will be that much harder.
We see modern American examples in the man who flew his plane into an IRS building and the man who smashed police trucks with his tractor. These events are unpredictable and can hardly be guarded against. A widespread insurgency will legitimize use of small arms in the minds of the disgruntled. The body count will demoralize government agents.
The people who care about consequences will operate anonymously. They will set fires, set bombs, operate sniper rifles from vans, smuggle handguns into locations with government loyalists. We see modern American examples in the terrorists who operated a sniper rifle from their van, the individual who shot police sitting in their cars, the individual who shot a few police officers and fled into the woods (they about shut down an entire state to catch the guy). Modern technology, although helpful, could not swiftly prevent or even capture these individuals. It does not take more than a single individual to unnerve an entire city, county, or state.
Supply lines would be hit. The military and police agencies rely on many private companies to exist. Fuel, food, electricity, water, clothing, technology… all become targets. A complicated supply chain leads to untold vulnerabilities and plenty of opportunity for insurgent objectives. With insider threats, this cannot all be defended and will be very costly to manage (just look at what normal services and supplies cost in Iraq).
Literally, the insurgency can continue on indefinitely (and there is no withdraw like in Iraq). To stop an embedded and anonymous insurgency requires heavy public support, a massive surveillance state, massive prisons, and a lot of other resources. This will not be like Iraq, in which the insurgents are a foreign population hiring other foreigners to fight against a unified American military. The insurgency will be Steve (the neighborhood hockey coach) augmented by unidentifiable sleeper agents embedded throughout the government. The current government has problems killing even current people who are in need of killing, now they are going to wage war on their own population. Unlikely.
The population probably would identify with the rebels. Forced religion, a subverted government, and having your wife raped would probably be enough, but if the government is engaging in the type of carpet bombing that Randazza imagines then this lack of government support would surely increase. Some commenters on Randazza’s post hypothesized that the government would use foreign mercenaries. This is also a bad policy for local support. Having foreign nationals kill citizens is likely to be seen as a foreign occupation and will increase rebel sympathies.
Government officials and loyalists would probably live in fear of assassination. The local population who has nothing to do with the insurgency would live in fear of both the insurgents (for being executed as loyalists) and the government (for being accidently branded as having insurgent sympathies). Top government officials may even attempt a second coup to stabilize the government (such as what happened in Chile).
Even if the population does not identify with the rebels, people quickly tire of war. Even if the insurgency is not generally supported, how long does support for prolonged warfare last? How would a well-armed insurgency affect long term popular opinion about prolonged war? Surely, the prospect of a sniper behind every bush is more threatening than a disarmed insurgency. People do not want to live in a world of uncertain violence (especially middle class Americans).
Insurgency without Guns
Of course, the point of Randazza’s original post is that deterring the government is not a
good reason for having guns. It should go unsaid (but sadly needs to be said) that it is irrational to assume that deterrence takes the form of a city rebelling and starting a new government, rather than historical deterrence (black panthers carrying shotguns to deter police abuse or farmer militias stopping federal enforcers from taking land). It is interesting that modern drug raids are carried out by heavily armed and armored police, suggesting that guns really do impose real and tangible threats to the government. Armed police often accompany Child Services when taking people’s children. When police and government officials are scared of being killed randomly, one might take this as evidence that guns do deter government action.
So, what if the government took all guns, and then somehow was able to control milling and 3d printing? The insurgency probably would take a major hit. In Communist Russia, Socialist Germany, and Communist China, and unarmed population was easily subdued (what heavily armed population was ever oppressed by their government?). Granted, the American fighting spirit would probably be greater than in these countries, with our long history of independent spirits. But not having a gun in every hand would definitely give the government a large starting advantage.
This is just a thought experiment on how an American insurgency would play out. Washington agencies are well area of these things, as they are tasked with mapping out various contingency situations. No doubt they have gone through scenarios looking at this exact thing, and have built contingency response plans. But how does one fight a well-armed local insurgency? It is near impossible.
If America were pushed to an insurgency, even an insurgency of 1% of the population, small arms would play a major role (as they do in Iraq, Afghanistan, gang activity, current anti-government violence). Small arms and asymmetric warfare can inflict untold damage on the government. If current gun ownership plays a major role in how the government currently acts and behaves, how much more when a large segment of the population is provoked?