The Second Civil War
Editor's note: In late March / early April of 2018, a few writers at CPR began debating the logistics of a hypothetical American Civil War, resulting from gun confiscation. The responses between those writers are collected below, chronologically.
You Can't Outgun the Government by Ethan Peikes
In the wake of the Parkland shooting last month and the ensuing March For Our Lives events held across the country this past weekend, many opposed to stricter gun control laws have flooded social media with the following George Washington quote: “A free people should not only be armed and disciplined, but should have sufficient arms and ammunition to maintain a status of independence from any who might attempt to abuse them, which would include their own government.”
Comedian Jim Jeffries had a bit about gun control a few years ago that I love because it’s hilarious, snarky, and most importantly, because he puts forth a genuinely excellent argument. Perhaps the most significant point he makes relates to the idea that we need guns to protect ourselves from a tyrannical government. I will admit, even as a staunch advocate for stricter gun laws, I do find this to be the most compelling argument in favor of the Second Amendment (by this I mean the perverse interpretation of the Second Amendment that many on the political right have adopted). In my view, it is the only argument why someone would need a weapon like an AR-15. This is not exactly the level of weapon one needs to protect his or her home from burglars, but it would certainly be useful in defending against a more capable adversary - in this case, the US government.
The point that Jeffries makes, and that has been echoed by many others recently, is that the government’s arsenal is so devastating that a civilian rebellion, even with weapons as violent as the AR-15 would not stand a chance. And, I hate to break it to you, he’s right. That’s not conjecture. It’s not my opinion. It’s just a fact. The government has tanks and drones and countless other technologies that go along with our immense level of defense spending (which the people who argue that they need arms to defend themselves from the government probably also supported at the voting booth). Basically, if the government goes rogue, we are screwed.
If your rebuttal to my argument is that we need to level the playing field and give civilians access to tanks and drones in order to ensure our security, we can have that conversation. The conversation will start and end with my suggestion that you seek counseling.
We can also have the slightly less insane conversation about whether states should have access to the same technologies as the federal government, since that is the entity that the Second Amendment is actually written for anyway. As you might have guessed, I’m not sold on that idea, either. There are countless ways that this could go wrong: states warring with each other, starting conflicts with other countries, etc. Most importantly, though, if someone like Sarah Palin can be elected governor, I am wary of expanding governors’ arsenals.
George Washington made the aforementioned remarks in an entirely different technological era. The argument that citizens need weapons to protect against a potentially tyrannical government made sense then because an organized civilian militia would actually stand a chance; that is not the case now. The AR-15 and weapons like it would make no difference in a fight with the US government, but they do make a difference in the hands of deranged people with intentions of carrying out indiscriminate mass murder.
I don’t like it any more than anti-gun control advocates, especially in this political moment (trust me) but at the end of the day, it seems everyone will simply have to put a little more faith in our government, and in the institutions that defend our democracy, because if we end up in a war with the federal government, we’ve already lost.
The Feasibility of Gun Confiscation by Will Rierson
The Carolina Political Review recently published a column, entitled “You Can’t Outgun the Government,” written by Ethan Peikes. I disagree with Peikes’ arguments against preservation of constitutional AR-15 ownership at several points. In this essay, I would like to express a technical disagreement. We can argue constitutional boundaries of gun ownership at a later time, but I want to explain why his thought that AR-15s and similar weapons “would make no difference” in a civil war between the government and gun owners is poorly constructed.
The Founding Fathers didn’t grant us the right to hunt with muskets less than a decade after fighting the world’s biggest superpower. No, the Second Amendment was written to explain that people have the natural right to revolt. The first 200 words of the Declaration of Independence explain that people have a duty to overthrow their government when it has violated natural rights through a long series of abuses.
The American Revolution originally sparked over gun control confiscation efforts. One may remember from grade school history that British troops stationed in Boston were sent to Concord, Massachusetts in April of 1775 to seize arms and gunpowder stored in a common building by Patriot militia. Well, the local yokels didn’t take too kindly to that government abuse and stood their ground in nearby Lexington.
A modern day gun confiscation effort would never work, and any ensuing warfare would force the federal government to eventually admit defeat. There are around 300 million guns in America, owned by tens of millions of citizens. The government could buy back up to 20 percent or so of the guns in America, like Australia did, but disarming most gun owners would require a bit more force.
Take a moment to imagine how many SWAT teams would be needed to take away all of the assault rifles in America, let alone the dangerous and concealable pistol, the destructive shotgun, or the ungentlemanly hunting or “sniper” rifle. These SWAT teams would consist of law enforcement officers, or perhaps military personnel, who themselves are more likely to be conservative gun owners than not. They would need to hit multiple houses a day for a few weeks on end to collect all of the guns, without taking significant casualties or causing a massive revolt.
If a civil war between gun owners and the government did occur, the gun owners would win. Despite all of the might of our nation’s military, it has shown a lackluster capability for snuffing out insurgencies in Vietnam and Afghanistan. Conventional armies like ours never do well against unconventional forces fighting on their own soil. The hypothetical domestic enemy could be young or old, male or female, white or non-white. For every militiaman killed on the field of battle, ten more may take his place in protest.
Now the U.S. Army did beat back the Indians two centuries ago, and the guerillas we have fought more recently have been supplied by foreign backers, but the American militia would be operating out of a first world country and have the ability to sustain itself. Gun owners include those who work in the firearms manufacturing, sales, and repair industries, machinists and welders, farmers and mechanics, EMTs and veterans.
Indeed, veterans and current military personnel would be the most effective militia members. They would have the knowledge and leadership experience to train others and destroy military targets. The U.S. military itself would undoubtedly split into groups loyal to the government or the constitution and fight each other, or back off for self-preservation. A large portion of the military is conservative, and I think that few in combat arms positions would consider orders to fight against their countrymen to be constitutional.
The militia of gun owners wouldn’t have to completely subdue the government, either. As an indigenous, unconventional fighting force the militia would work toward the ultimate goal of making total government domination of the American heartland more trouble than it's worth. It would achieve that goal through harassing military supply lines and turning the civilian population against the government.
The government could not sustain a ground force in the American heartland, and the sheer size of the American suburbs would make drone strike operations difficult. For instance, only a few rednecks with hunting rifles and perhaps dynamite are needed to close all of the mountain passes for interstates crossing the Appalachian mountains. Two of those three ingredients are native to the mountains, and miners or quarry workers can probably find the third with ease. And a few civilian casualties from neighborhood drone strikes could quickly lead civilians to think that letting conservatives own AR-15s simply isn’t worth the cost.
You see, the government’s matter-of-fact dominance in a potential gun confiscation war is far from settled. Through thirty minutes of thinking and writing, I believe that I have produced a few reasonable arguments. I would not welcome a civil war on American soil over gun ownership, and don’t recommend it either. Peikes’ argument ends with the observation that “if we end up in a war with the federal government, we’ve already lost.” On a philosophical level he may be exactly right, but in practical terms he is wrong. I welcome further debate.
Guns Will Not Save Us From Tyranny by Chris Donahue
Recently, Ethan Peikes posted a column on the Carolina Political Review in which he argued that the American people would stand no chance in the event of a war against the federal government. In response, Will Rierson posted the column “The Feasibility of Gun Confiscation,” in which he argued against Peikes, essentially laying the case for how a guerrilla-style insurrection over gun confiscations could potentially hold its own in the US. To keep the debate moving forward, I’d like to throw in my two cents and push back against Rierson’s argument. While he brings a number of strong points to the discussion, such as the ideological overlap between many in the military and those who would hypothetically revolt against a tyrannical government, his argument ultimately fails to acknowledge two key points; the extent of the military industrial complex in our society, and the ruthlessness of a government fighting for its survival.
First, any examination of American war must look at the role of the US military industrial complex. Five-star World War II General and President Dwight D. Eisenhower famously warned the American public about the growing military industrial complex in his 1961 farewell address. In short, Eisenhower spoke on the dangerously close relationship developing between weapons manufacturers and the US government. In modern times, we’ve seen the war industry further entrench itself in our political system through malicious business practices like dividing production into as many districts as possible to ensure congressional support and extensive lobbying efforts through organizations such as the beloved NRA.
The American war industry’s most loyal customers are the US government and its allies and these businesses are deeply invested in maintaining the political status quo so that they can keep raking in their trillions. In the event of an armed insurrection against the US government, the weapons industry would be the first group to stand against the pro-gun rebels. Yes, that includes the NRA. Our conservative leaders who preach protection for the second amendment are already bought and paid for by Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, Smith & Wesson, and the rest of weapons industry (just to be clear, the military industrial complex is not a partisan issue; political leaders on the left are equally corrupted by the system). The military industrial complex blurs the lines between government and private war industry to where their goals and survival become dangerously intertwined.
In Rierson’s analysis, he fails to recognize the role that the military industrial complex would play in dividing conservatives and motivating an all out war in a hypothetical civil revolt over gun confiscations. The polarization of the current gun control debate has driven many on the right to embrace the war industry and their mouthpieces like the NRA as the true protectors of the second amendment. I fear that in the event of an actual armed conflict, these groups will be more interested in the survival of their biggest client than in the survival of their loyal supporters. And of course, they would then exert their massive influence over conservatives to dissuade and divide any organized revolt.
This ties into my second point, which is the ruthlessness of a government fighting for its own self preservation. Rierson cites the US military’s numerous failures with guerrilla warfare in the past as evidence for the possibility of a successful American guerrilla revolt. The problem with this argument is that the examples used, Vietnam and Afghanistan, were not failures just because the enemy used guerrilla warfare; rather they were wars that lacked purpose and total motivated support from the US government and its people. These were not wars fought directly for survival in the same way that World War II was.
In the event of an actual revolt among the American people, the government would be fighting for its own self preservation and there would be no restraint from the military. As we’ve seen in historical examples of tyrannical governments battling civil revolts, the hunger for self preservation drives excessive force, horrific atrocities, and disregard for civilian lives. Look to the Spanish Civil War in the 1930’s and the bombing of Guernica, or the more recent Syrian Civil War, in which civilians have been gassed in chemical attacks and entire cities turned into battlegrounds.
Rierson fails to recognize the desperation of an all out war for survival, and so the argument that the government may decide that winning is “more trouble than it's worth” doesn’t apply. With the trillion dollar military industrial complex behind the government, along with the rest of the world’s elite who depend on the status quo of the US government, a fight to the bitter end would be worth every penny.
I’m willing to grant Rierson that the fight may not end immediately, but modern technologies like nuclear and biochemical weapons make this kind of war for self-preservation unwinnable. The last time the United States fought directly for its survival was World War II, and it ended very poorly for its opponent. Even if a revolt against the US was successful, there would be nothing left to claim victory over but rubble. To return to President Eisenhower, on the topic of nuclear weapons he once said, “You cannot have this type of war. There just aren’t enough bulldozers to scrape the bodies off the streets.”
And apart from the war itself, imagine the propaganda campaign a war for survival would require. Rierson mentioned that many conservatives, like those in the military, wouldn’t stand by idly as a civil war occurred, but I would counter that. The US government wouldn’t stand by idly and let their people sympathize with those who wish to overthrow them. A government desperate for survivable would do all it could to manipulate and divide the public.
In fact, I have a theory of how this could be achieved quite easily. Given the level of political division and polarization today, a group of rural conservative rebels could be easily demonized, especially among liberal-leaning urban population centers on the coasts. Even among conservatives, there are numerous ideological divisions that could be attacked. Already in our country, we view those with different political viewpoints as enemies, and in the event of a civil war, these existing divisions would be the government’s ultimate weapon. While we can have a reasonable and mutually respectful political debate here at the CPR, this is not the norm in modern America by any means.
As we experienced in Vietnam and Afghanistan, a war is equal parts ideological as it is actual fighting. To defeat an insurrection, the US could simply exploit the political cracks that already exist in our society to divide the people. Disorganized and divided people are easily controlled and defeated by any government. And hateful and fearful people are more easily herded into supporting tyranny. To tie in Rierson’s discussion of our Founding Fathers, the architects of our nation recognized the need for unity as a tool to fight tyranny just as much as they recognized the right to bear arms. This is why our government is deeply based in democratic values. This is why Benjamin Franklin famously wrote, “Join, or Die.” The American Revolution was not successful simply because of guerilla warfare or an availability of muskets, but also because of the strong unity across the people of the colonies and among their ideologically-diverse leaders.
Peikes was absolutely correct when he wrote, “if we end up in a war with the federal government, we’ve already lost.” This is not only because of the sheer power of the US military, but also because the fight against tyranny does not start on the battlefield with an AR-15. It starts in our votes against politicians who are corrupted by war industry lobbying groups and who exacerbate the military industrial complex. It starts with how we view those on the other side of the political aisle. And most importantly, it starts in our daily lives with how we treat people who disagree with us. A healthy, educated, and moderate democracy is our greatest weapon against tyranny; not guns. As Eisenhower said in his farewell address, “Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals, so that security and liberty may prosper together.”
Thank you to Will and Ethan for sharing your thoughts on this important topic, and I too welcome further debate.
On American Civil War by Will Rierson
These thoughts are in response to Chris Donahue’s “Guns Will Not Save Us From Tyranny,” part of a civil debate within the Carolina Political Review community.
Donahue has a point that the “military industrial complex” may side with a tyrannical government for profit, but several groups within that field would not. For example, Magpul Industries, a producer of rifle magazines and accessories, moved its business from Colorado when the state legislature there banned the civilian purchase of standard capacity AR-15 magazines. Magpul also distributed free 30-round magazines to citizens in a stunt called the Boulder Airlift. A Green Mountain Airlift was just orchestrated in the last week of March to assist in rallying Vermont gun owners facing restrictions of their rights. In the case of the NRA, brought up by Donahue, it is first silly to consider them the mouthpiece of the firearms industry. A cursory glance at a list of interest groups would tell you that the National Shooting Sports Foundation is the manufacturer’s alliance, and the NRA makes its money from dues and donations as a mass-member organization. If pro-gun America seceded from regular society, the NRA would cease to exist behind enemy lines.
Neither Donahue or I can claim to be completely right about the length to which the government would continue a civil war. He makes a good point that Bashar al-Assad has been just fine with gassing citizens and destroying cities to maintain grip on Syria. I don’t think a second American Civil War would include the use of nuclear or chemical weapons, as Donahue suggests. The United States is valuable because of its resources and productive capabilities. Destroying large swaths of it would leave the winner with nothing but a wasteland. And again, the objective of an unconventional native force like the militia would be to turn the citizenry against the occupying force and harass its forces until territorial control is uneconomical.
Donahue is right that a tyrannical government would use propaganda to exploit social cleavages or hoodwink the population into not fighting it. That said, social media, HAM radio, and good old word of mouth would be enough to go around the government information blockade. If resistance fighters in Nazi-occupied Europe had access to outside information in the 1940’s, they would in the future. A second civil war would of course be terrible for the social fabric of our country and lead to mass chaos in which different bands of people would be fighting each other or the government for a variety of reasons. I think the ultimate result of the war could be an invasion from a “coalition of the willing” abroad. Forces from Russia, China, NATO, and possibly American forces overseas would be called upon to secure the U.S. I fear that the nations of the world would not give much respect to traditional American freedoms in their occupation and rebuilding attempt.
My original issue with Ethan Peike’s piece “You Can’t Outgun the Government” was a technical one. I disagreed with his view that gun owners would be unable to win a fight against a tyrannical federal government. I believe that American liberty is defended by both the ballot box and the cartridge box, though the latter should only be used in the most extreme of circumstances. It is every man and woman’s duty to ensure that our government never oversteps its bounds. This makes voting, protest, and responsible gun ownership essential aspects of citizenship.
If You Shouldn't Fight for Guns, for What Should You Fight? by Brian Massey
This Review’s publication of a series of articles tackling the debate on gun control from several viewpoints has been immensely satisfying to read. Ethan Peikes’ introductory piece covering the mismatch between government and civilians when it comes to waging war was parried by Will Rierson’s rebuttal, delving into the potential difficulties of actually confiscating guns. Chris Donahue’s exceptional piece delving into the military industrial complex and its sinister influence on domestic politics covers some of the same ground as Peikes while also addressing Rierson’s points, but I have some points of contention with it.
To begin I’d like to tackle the premise of the government’s martial advantages. It’s true that any government is likely to have an overwhelming advantage against its citizens should war break out, particularly in the age of drones and chemical weapons, but the ultimate victor of such a war isn’t the point. When Donahue suggests that no tyrannical government would decide that “winning” is more trouble than it’s worth, he misses that Rierson’s point wasn’t that tyrants wouldn’t try to hold on to power as long as possible, but that the tyrannically minded would avoid a war against an armed populace altogether. The Second Amendment acts as a form of deterrence; the more capability citizens have to retaliate against the government, the less likely the government will be willing to overstep its boundaries. Without knowing our potential tyrant, it is of course rather difficult to know if they will be deterred by a well-armed citizenry, but you can be fairly certain a completely unarmed populace will do little to make a despot reconsider overstepping legal boundaries.
The second major argument the article makes is that the government and/or the military industrial complex, in waging wars for their survival, would utilize their vast resources to influence public opinion and manipulate the population into surrender. I agree on the hypothetical action but disagree on the result. Certainly, small scale disturbances could be quietly squelched and nascent anti-government movements could be effectively smeared into obscurity, but in an all-out civil war? There is no reason to believe the government could adequately contain the undoubtedly horrific stories inundating the country about drone attacks on civilians. Indeed, if one takes Peikes’ premise is to its logical extreme, as Donahue does, and envisions the hypothetical despotic government literally going nuclear to attain victory then surely there is no manipulation or explanation that could make a rational citizen side with the regime. Donahue’s own assessment of the Vietnam and Afghanistan wars support this; if those wars “were wars that lacked purpose and total motivated support from the US government and its people,” then how could a war on the very people who should support the government ever be embraced?
However on Donahue’s general thesis I wholeheartedly agree. Merely breaking down the reasons why a tyrannical government would or would not be successful isn’t altogether helpful in the debate on guns. Rather than debate who wins in a scenario where everyone loses, let’s address Peikes’ argument from the position that he is unreservedly correct. The government is utterly superior to any imaginable civilian resistance, and thus the Second Amendment is a triviality to it. Where does this leave us? If the Second Amendment can only ever facilitate suicides, accidental shootings and mass casualty events, then why shouldn’t we restrict it? Before you answer, take a moment to replace the Amendment above with another Amendment, perhaps the 4th. I’ve argued in this very review the power of technology when misused by governments. As for the reach of governments into said technology, the NSA and CIA have collected a trove of hacks that allow them to, among other things, access wireless router data and record people via Smart TVs. With the revelation that the NSA was collected data of millions of Americans without their consent, and recent revelations that at least two presidential campaigns used data mining firms that skirted the law there is little doubt that if the government wanted to, it could completely subvert your right to privacy. Are you ready to throw the 4th Amendment out? I imagine far fewer people would be on board with legitimizing government intrusion into the privacy of its citizens based on the premise of its inevitability. Proponents of a less restrictive Second Amendment are cognizant of this when they argue against the calls for gun control.
Of course, as Donahue notes, the ultimate weapons in the war against tyranny are the democratic process and the rule of law, weapons powered by free speech and open debate. Which is why discussions of gun control need to continue happening, but the supposed futility of resisting a tyrannical government is not a reason to reject any part of the Constitution, Second Amendment included. Just because the government has the capability to overwhelm a well-armed militia, doesn’t mean we should roll out the red carpet for tyranny. If you’re not willing to protect one of your rights just because the fight would be hard, why protect any at all? May the debate continue!