~ Tuesday, March 18, 2003
Did a lack of gun control create Saddam?

American gun advocates have long argued that, just as an apple a day keeps the doctor away, lots of people with lots of guns will keep tyrants away. Of all of the pro-gun arguments, this strikes me as the creepiest. In America, we are ruled by democratically elected officials (well, excepting Dubya, but that's curiously not a case that disturbs the gun pushers). So the "right of revolution" propounded by pro-gunners is the right of a few self-appointed patriots to overthrow a government chosen by a majority of their fellow citizens. Whatever happened to the ballot over the bullet?

Beyond the inherent creepiness of the argument, there is a striking poverty of historical evidence for it. In the first place, widespread gun ownership is not, empirically, a necessary condition of free government. Many countries with fairly restrictive gun laws (Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, for instance) have somehow escaped the ravages of dictatorship.

Perhaps because this is so clear, gun advocates have ignored necessity in favor of sufficiency. That's why the gun lobby focuses so much on Hitlerian Germany. If the Nazis had failed to control guns and if Germans (or Jews) had all been armed, the argument goes, Hitler's tyranny and the Holocaust would have been impossible. Of course, Nazi gun control happens to be one of the great urban legends (the Nazis didn't impose gun control, and their first changes to gun laws, five years after coming to power, actually eased restrictions on gun ownership). Still, gun ownership seems to have been uncommon in Germany between the World Wars, so it doesn't quite refute the pro-gun thesis.

But Iraq does. By popular acclaim, Saddam's Iraq is one of the world's nastiest and most totalitarian dictatorships. I'm sure most pro-gunners, in particular, see Saddam as an especially oppressive dictator. According to a March 12 New York Times article about Iraqi citizens preparing themselves for post-war unrest, however, gun ownership is almost universal in Iraq.

One gauge of that fear is the trade at gun shops. Most Iraqi households own at least one gun, so there has been no particular run on armaments. But some gun shop owners report as much as a 50 percent jump in ammunition sales.

So, pro-gunners here have a real dilemma. Either they're mistaken about Saddam (since lots of Iraqis have lots of guns, he can't be a such a bad ruler!), or they're wrong about guns and oppressive government. I'm not holding out any hope that gun advocates will say lots of Iraqis owning guns caused Saddamism, although they would surely have attributed Saddamism to a lack of gun ownership if any such lack existed.

If they want my advice, I'd suggest ditching the guns and tyranny schtick: it's a stupid argument anyway.

UPDATE: Tim Noah of Slate got to this one first.

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