Gun control and social revolution

Published in Green Left, 4 September 1996, p. 14, with minor changes and deletions
pdf of published article

Brian Martin

Gun control is typically presented as a measure to reduce dangers to the public from murders, suicides and accidents. But it can also be interpreted as "disarming the people." After all, what is called "gun control" takes weapons out of the hands of ordinary citizens but not out of the hands of police and soldiers. Does gun control help or hinder social revolution, namely a transformation of social structures towards cooperation, equality and justice?

Leninists have long seen armed struggle as an essential part of overthrowing the capitalist state. Thus, for a people's revolution to occur, the people must be armed. Gun control, which means giving power to the state to restrict the weapons people can own and use, thus seems counter-revolutionary.

This picture had some plausibility in the 1800s, before the great advances in military and police technology of the last century. If the most advanced weapon available is the rifle, then an armed population can take on military forces with some chance of success. But in any industrialised country today, the state is militarily superior to even the most well-armed insurgents. The military has machine guns, helicopters and missiles, not to mention advanced surveillance and communication technology. In a direct armed conflict, the military will always win hands down.

A few industrialised countries have taken the road of arming the population. Switzerland is one, and is often cited as an example of how gun ownership is compatible with a high degree of democratic control. But another example is former Yugoslavia, where a state policy of arming the people has contributed to the bloodshed after central control dissolved.

The fundamental problem is that the state has poured vast resources into developing ever more deadly weapons, and that these weapons are of far greater value to state elites than to popular oppositions. As a result, armed liberation is at best a deadly process. For example, the war for Algerian independence cost a million lives. To imagine armed "liberation" using nuclear or biological weapons is a contradiction in terms.

In a situation where the state has an overwhelming superiority in firepower, political struggle provides the best chance for challenging state power. It has long been the case that guerrilla struggles have worked at least as much through political work as force of arms. The dilemma is that the use of violence by opponents of the state often has the effect of legitimising state violence -- which usually is far more deadly -- and reducing the chance that soldiers and police will defect.

A different model of social revolution is to refuse to use violence and instead to rely entirely on nonviolent methods of struggle such as rallies, marches, vigils, strikes, boycotts, work-to-rule, sit-ins, and setting up alternative institutions. It is much harder for state elites to justify violence against nonviolent protesters than against armed guerrillas. It is for this reason that governments often try to provoke opponents into using violence, sometimes using undercover agents to foment it.

In the past decade there have been a number of prominent examples of social change brought about largely through nonviolent action. In 1986 "people power" was crucial in toppling the Marcos dictatorship in the Philippines. In 1989, mass rallies and emigration were part of the process of undermining the communist states in eastern and central Europe. But there are many more historical examples, such as the 11 dictatorships in Central and South America overthrown through nonviolent insurrections from 1931 to 1961 and the numerous successes of nonviolent action in Africa in the past couple of decades.

These examples show the potential of nonviolent action, but so far the potential is largely unrealised. States have spent trillions of dollars preparing soldiers and weapons for war. The proponents of armed revolution can point to a long tradition of writings, systems and experiences of training and struggle. By comparison, the promotion of nonviolent revolution has hardly begun. It would mean, among other things, education in methods of nonviolent action, development of links between movements within and between countries, simulations, development of appropriate technologies for communication and survival, and development of knowledge and practical skills in psychology, organising, tactics and strategy.

From the point of view of nonviolent revolution, gun control in its present form is a mixed measure. Its main value is in reducing the social legitimacy of weapons and violence as an everyday activity. Its main limitation is a neglect of military and police weapons.

As well as challenging the legitimacy of guns for the population, it is also necessary to question the need for police to be armed and to raise the idea of social defence, namely popular nonviolent action as an alternative to military defence. To help bring this about, the general population needs not to be armed with weapons but with skills and resources for nonviolent action.

BRIAN MARTIN teaches in science and technology studies at the University of Wollongong and is author of Social Defence, Social Change.

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