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Know Your Opponent: The Antis’ Creed

by Robert W. Hunnicutt   |  June 21st, 2013 3

I am always happy for you to read what we have on offer here on, but I would be the first to tell you what you really need to read is what the other side says. If you’re getting all your news from Fox and your opinion from Limbaugh, you are not educating yourself enough. Knowing what the prohibitionists are saying is vital, because if you don’t know, how can you counter it?

I always enjoy reading the other side’s arguments, and the better they’re put, the better I like it. You get no exercise going up against the junior varsity; I want to see what the starters are saying. We need to be prepared to counter the best arguments they have, and studying them only makes our arguments better.

So I enjoyed a recent commentary on Montana Public Radio  by Tom Power titled “Citizen Gun Ownership as a Way of Protecting Ourselves from an Authoritarian Government.” Not to put too fine a point on it, Power is skeptical of that notion.

The MPR website didn’t identify Mr. Power, but recourse to the Internet identified him as Thomas M. Power, research professor of economics at the University of Montana. I emailed his U of M address and he responded in timely and friendly fashion that he was, indeed, the author and directed me to a couple of previous commentaries in a similar vein.

The professor’s argument is, in a nutshell, this. Life before centralized governments was, as Hobbes put it, “nasty, brutish and short,” what with marauding bands of barbarians, clan and dynastic warfare and endemic common crime. I think we can all agree that looking over the next hill and seeing the Visigoths or the Golden Horde galloping in your direction would ruin the whole day. A strong king was a vital shield against mayhem, both within and without.

On the everyday level, places with weak government like the Old West were plagued with feuds, dueling and general gunplay, often fueled by Demon Rum. These spots were just waiting for the marshal to run out the bad guys and the schoolmarm to bring civilization:

“The point is that it was relatively strong governments that imposed ‘the rule of law’ that set up institutions to settle grievances and punish law-breakers. That ‘rule of law’ in effect gave the government the sole right to use deadly force except in very limited circumstances, primarily immediate self-defense. The result was a dramatic decline in violence where effective organized governments existed. In ‘failed states,’ of course, the violent chaos continued and continues.”

Well, not too much to argue there, except it shortchanges non-government factors like the spread of Christian faith in the Great Awakening and the war against drunkenness and domestic abuse waged by groups like the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. I would argue that the Wild West was tamed only when people were ready to be tame. State power was only a part of the equation.

But then the author makes the classic anti-gunner appeal, to Mahatma Gandhi:

“It was also true that such strong governments, having monopolized the use of violence, could oppress citizens in intolerable ways. How is the citizenry to fight back in that situation if it is not also armed and free to use violence to resist? The answer to that was taught to us by Gandhi in his non-violent struggle to end the British colonial control of his native India. Much of the European colonial empires disintegrated not because they were overpowered by indigenous armed force but because of the non-violent resistance of citizens who appealed to the human rights values shared by the citizens of the European colonizers.”

Well, where to start with that one? Let’s start at the end. While Gandhi and other anti-colonialists like Jomo Kenyatta and Ho Chi Minh get a lot of credit, two events doomed the colonial empires. That would be World War I and World War II. Imagining what the world would be like without those conflicts makes for an interesting daydream—we might just now be getting around to the jet engine and atomic bomb.

But if there’s one thing for certain, it’s that the world wars made inevitable the end of colonialism, both in the large sense of weakening the colonial powers and in the small sense of raising national consciousness and skill at arms as Asian and African troops served in European armies. Without the world wars, the Union Jack might still be waving over palm and pine, and people in places like Pakistan might be the better for it.

Gandhi, thanks to book and film portrayals, has the image of a perpetually peaceful and holy man utterly averse to violence. That greatly oversimplifies him. He used non-violence because he was facing a nation unmatched in military and financial power. But that same nation saw colonialism as a violation of its own democratic values.

Non-violence was precisely the proper strategy when Gandhi was facing Ramsay MacDonald, Stanley Baldwin or Neville Chamberlain. Anyone think it would have worked with Hitler, Stalin or Mao? Or Kim Jong Un? Or Ayatollah Khamenei? It didn’t work too well on Churchill, for all that.

And don’t think violence never occurred to Gandhi. Take this quote, for example:

“It is better to be violent, if there is violence in our hearts, than to put on the cloak of nonviolence to cover impotence.”

Or this one:

“Among the many misdeeds of the British rule in India, history will look upon the act depriving a whole nation of arms as the blackest.”

Gandhi is an appealing ideal if you are fighting the rotting remains of a decayed and doomed system. Not so much if you are facing a determined, ruthless enemy.


“The more recent disintegration of the Soviet Union and its puppet governments in Eastern Europe was also not the result of armed struggle. It was the result of the ongoing development of resistance within civil society in many of the countries that were part of the Soviet ‘evil empire.’ The leadership of some of the nastiest of the Soviet Bloc countries was simply not willing to fire on its own citizens or the police forces and armies were not willing to do so. Again, non-violent resistance built around shared national values and human rights led to a largely non-violent collapse of a heavily armed totalitarian empire.”

Well, someone better tell that to Romanian dictator Nicolae Ceaucescu and Mrs. Ceaucescu, who met a bullet-riddled end at the hands of, among others, some acquaintances of mine on the Romanian Olympic pistol team. Is Prof. Power really telling us that it’s better for a dictator to wind up in a comfy retirement, like Idi Amin or “Baby Doc” Duvalier, than to face the muzzles of justice, or to wind up hanging from a meat hook like Mussolini? Sorry, not buying that one.

I guess the Founding Fathers of this country could have taken the Gandhi approach and tried to get the British to leave with sit-ins and boycotts, but they didn’t intend to wait that long. It took until 1867 for Canada to achieve independence: is Canadian independence somehow better than ours because it was achieved without bloodshed? Nope, the Founders wanted independence on their schedule, not on George III’s. And sometimes, it takes more than marching in circles with a sign to get it.

The antis aren’t making the argument against the right to bear arms that would be hardest to refute, namely, that small arms are no longer sufficient to fight a government that can listen in on the phone calls of every one of 300 million people, turn the IRS on its enemies and intimidate the press with criminal prosecution. Of course, that would mean admitting that the sheriff and the schoolmarm aren’t always agents of civilization after all.

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