The general class of arguments I'm addressing here is based on the notion that firearms in the hands of private citizens are a useful (and perhaps even necessary) tool for opposing or preventing the establishment/growth of tyranny. I think we all can agree tyranny is bad and a good thing to oppose.
Agents of the tyrannical government may show up at my door and I want to be able to defend myself and my family
First of all, let's be clear: the United States in 2012 is not, as some but not all proponents of this view assert, a tyranny. Even if you think the government is too large, overstepping its proper function or excessively authoritarian -- and even if you think it is becoming increasingly so -- we are not, by any objective measure, an actual tyranny at this time. We are, at present, a fundamentally free and democratic society, even if you believe we are headed down a path towards dictatorship and even if the free and democratic government engages in some (or even many) actions that are improper.
In a free and democratic society, you don't have the right to oppose the government with force (and it is proper for the government to prevent you from stockpiling offensive weapons for purposes of doing so). You do have the right to disagree with the government's policies, write about them, attempt to convince others, petition the government, protest and otherwise engage within the democratic process to work to improve things.
You also don't have a right to selectively choose which actions of the government to obey and which to oppose by force (actually, you don't get to oppose any by force). So even if you are opposed to Obamacare, and even if you decide not to obtain health insurance for yourself in contravention of the individual mandate, and even if the government then sends agents to your house to force you to comply, you don't get to shoot them. That does not constitute a legitimate exercise of the right to bear arms or to self defense with your firearm, that constitutes criminal behavior. Again, you can oppose the law and work for its repeal, but taking shots at G-Men, no way.
Now, let's pretend that you wake up tomorrow morning and find yourself under the rule of an actual tyrannical government. Like Galactic Empire tyrannical. You have no democratic recourse to improve the government. You cannot escape (either to another country or by hiding in the hills). Suddenly, you see the Secret Police coming down the street to arrest you and your family for thought crimes and place you in a concentration camp.
|Vote for these guys, it is your... destiny|
In that scenario, it is 100% moral and legitimate of you to attack the agents of the tyrannical government with your fists, rocks, knives and any firearm you might own as a matter of self defense. The Secret Police are criminals coming to deprive you of your right to life, not agents of a legitimate government. You have a right to defend yourself just as you would against a murderer wielding a knife.
Understand, however, that in this scenario, your right to bear arms is effectively a right to choose how you're going to die. You can either surrender and die in the gas chamber or fight and die in a flurry of tyrannical government bullets (either now or when they come back later in greater force if you succeed in fighting this particular batch of agents off). If you choose to fight it out, you might take a few Secret Policemen with you, and I think it's fair to call that 'opposing the tyrannical government.' But, in a bigger sense, your gun isn't doing anything meaningful to oppose the government politically or militarily. It's giving you the opportunity to die on your own terms. Very brave, undeniably heroic, kind of a poor reason to own gun, in my opinion.
I want to be able to participate in an organized, armed resistance against a tyrannical government
This one is more plausible. It's not necessarily asserting that we have a tyranny now or advocating for some weird Alamo-like last stand. It's pointing out that if we ever come under the rule of a tyrannical government, freedom-loving armed citizens could band together, offer resistance and contribute to the overthrow of the tyranny. It's happened before. If enough righteous citizens don't have access to firearms prior to the establishment of the tyranny (which will presumably repeal the 2nd Amendment in the course of coming to power), this citizen resistance won't be able to happen.
Let's leave aside the question of whether a subset of the civillian population armed with semi-automatic rifles, shotguns and handguns could offer effective resistance against the US military (for the record, I don't think that's as implausible as some people do: armed rebels overthrew a well-established dictatorship in Libya -- albeit with outside help -- when the government had military-grade weapons and fighter jets). Let's also leave aside the question of whether such a citizen uprising could happen without relying on a pre-existing civil defense/militia/military structure (American Revolution, French Resistance in WWII). For the sake of argument, let's grant that if tyranny were established, having an organized, armed citizen resistance would be a good thing and that it would require individual citizens to have amassed weapons in their homes in advance.
Having stipulated that, this post is about evaluating if this armed resistance against tyranny argument for owning a gun is a good one. To do so, we need to evaluate the value of a gun in prepping for the armed resistance and how likely it is that the tyranny we would be fighting against will come into existence and compare that against any other risks that might be associated with owning a gun during the time period in which you would be keeping the gun in your home waiting for the need for resistance to arise. Gun ownership for this purpose would seem to make sense when the risk-adjusted value on the left side of the equation outweighs the actual risks on the right. So is that the case in the US in 2012?
There are real risks to having a gun in one's home, some of them even quantifiable (having a gun in the home increases the chances of someone in the home being the victim of murder or of committing suicide by a statistically measurable amount, for example). It is much more difficult to calculate the odds of America descending into actual tyranny in a given timeframe. Realistically, the overnight Galactic Empire scenario isn't going to happen and surely, as has been the case throughout history, there would be a gradual descent into tyranny or dictatorship. Perhaps this has already started.
Ayn Rand provides four characteristics for identifying dictatorships. Perhaps these aren't the only ones, but they seem useful and plausible:
There are four characteristics which brand a country unmistakably as a dictatorship: one-party rule—executions without trial or with a mock trial, for political offenses—the nationalization or expropriation of private property—and censorship.The first two are, I think, demonstrably not present in 2012 America, nor is the fourth, and no one in mainstream politics is talking about establishing them. The third, expropriation of private property, is less clear. There are certainly examples of the government engaging in imminent domain seizures of property, and one could plausibly argue that certain tax policies amount to redistribution of wealth or confiscation of property. Certainly this is not as widespread or severe yet as it was in periods preceding the establishment of actual dictatorships (in, e.g., Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia).
It's hard to weigh this, as I said, but I don't think it's reasonable to conclude that the equation is at or close to the tipping point yet.
An armed citizenry prevents (or slows) the establishment of tyranny
This one is more subtle. The claim here is that armed private citizens act as a sort of practical or political check on tyranny. The government would be more tyrannical, this argument goes, if it didn't have to worry about private citizens with guns being able to oppose it with force.
The better version of this argument identifies specific acts or policies of a tyrannical government that an armed private citizenry might oppose. Examples of this include the seizure of private property or individuals without due process of law, forcible conscription into the armed forces, arrest or execution of innocent individuals for political reasons and persecution of minority groups. This argument is lent much credence by the numerous examples of dictatorships that made moves to limit weaponry in the hands of private citizens prior to committing acts like those.
That argument ignores the numerous free and democratic countries that have enacted stricter gun control measures than the US, for example modern Japan and Australia without the establishment of dictatorships. It also ignores the fact that there is longstanding cultural tradition of free, limited, democratic, non-authoritarian government premised on the recognition of individual rights in America, unique in the history of the world and absent in the historical examples of dictatorships that preemptively disarmed their citizens (the transition from pre-Nazi to Nazi Germany is a notably interesting and complex case). And while there are limited historical examples of the US government engaging in those practices (most notably slavery but also interment of people of Japanese origin during WWII and suspension of the writ of habeas corpus during the Civil War), they are remote historically and/or were emergency measures during wartime and the long term trend with regard to these things is actually away from tyranny, not towards it. Parenthetically, I'd also note that in America, there is a stronger history of those sorts of offenses being perpetrated by armed citizens acting improperly in a quasi-governmental capacity than by the actual government, as evidenced by things like lynch mobs, frontier justice, blood feuds, posses and armed 'militia' groups acting in contravention of legitimate governmental authority.
The weaker version of this argument is more general. It posits that the presence of armed citizens has a less specific, fourth branch of government sort of check and balance effect on tyrannical government. What data we could put forth on this doesn't speak well for this argument. Both the absolute and per capita rates of gun ownership in this country are presently at all time highs, rising, and approaching a ratio of 1 gun per citizen. I would argue -- as would many, I suspect, who put forth this version of the argument -- that America is demonstrably less free (and becoming increasingly less so) than it was, say, 100 or 200 years ago. So the long term increase in gun ownership is actually negatively correlated with freedom. Or, to state it another way, more guns apparently equals more tyranny. (To be clear, I don't think there's actually a causal relationship there, just a correlation ultimately caused by deeper factors that underlie both phenomena).
Others who hold this position concede that America is becoming less free but argue that it would be doing so faster were it not for the armed citizenry. I think a variety of competing cultural factors -- most significantly a longstanding cultural respect for individual rights and freedom coming up against more recent socialist, collectivist and anti-democratic ideas -- are responsible for the rate at which tyranny increases. I suppose it is possible for gun ownership rates to be a factor, though they would pale in comparison to long term cultural and intellectual trends. Moreover, the burden of proof is on the part of the person advancing the 'guns slow the spread of tyranny' argument, and so absent a coherent argument supported by data (for example a statistical regression analysis that isolates the gun ownership component from other factors), it is proper to regard that claim as arbitrary.