You can’t protect liberty with a firearm

You can’t protect liberty with a firearm
© Getty

In 1927, Mao Zedong, the chairman of China’s Communist Party, famously said that “political power grows out the barrel of a gun.” In his mind, firearms could be used to win wars, to coerce citizens and to make history.

Indeed, throughout history, when we think about the sorts of earth-shattering events which have redrawn our national borders, brought down tyrants and created revolutions, we have looked, first and foremost at the use of conventional weapons.  

It is for this reason that Americans have always valued the Second Amendment. Ratified in 1791, the right to bear arms is an intrinsic part of American culture, seen as a bulwark against tyranny. Firearms are said to support our rights to self-defense and resistance to oppression, as well as allowing us to act together in defense of the state. But as a result of the tragic events in Columbine, Newtown and now Lakeland, Fla., many Americans have started to ask if the Second Amendment is really necessary, that perhaps it’s time to retire, or at least modify, our historic understandings of this right since the risk of a madmen using those same weapons against citizens is simply too high.

But the question we really need to be asking is: What are the main threats to democracy today, and could conventional weapons actually be used to defend ourselves, our families or our republic against them? I don’t think so. Most of the threats to democracy today have little to do with conventional warfare. One of the greatest threats to liberty today is the rise of new and different types of surveillance, and the end of privacy as we know it.

While conventional weapons could keep physical soldiers from crossing our thresholds and occupying our homes, today a tyrant would not have to even enter our physical home to take away our liberty – because most of us have a home security network which includes devices like a Nest thermostat, a Google Home device, laptops and i-Pads. A smart hacker could access these devices and turn them against us – collecting our household financial data, our passwords or even spying on us through our own cameras. In this scenario, how useful would a gun be to keep government “out” of our homes?

Another threat to democracy today is the apparently increasing support for authoritarian ideas and the increasing polarization of our citizens. In 2013, Russian General Valery Gerasimov laid out a Russian strategy for inciting anarchy and chaos in a region. He stated that in the future, wars will be fought with a four-to-one ratio of nonmilitary to military measures. These nonmilitary measures include information warfare techniques like subversion, espionage, propaganda, and cyberattacks. These measures could confuse the population, and destroy their trust in their public institutions including leadership and the media.

As we have seen in recent months, attempts by Russia to meddle in U.S. elections have indeed caused people to question the legitimacy of our leaders and institutions. People aren’t sure who to trust or what news is real. And all this was accomplished without the use of a single firearm. It’s hard to see how having one would be useful in such a fight. Instead, the best way to protect and defend our democracy today is not with weapons but rather through creating an educated population which shares common values and ideas, and which is well-informed about issues and their rights.

If an adversary wanted to threaten the U.S. and its citizens today, there are any number of ways they could do so without using military force. They might deploy biological weapons to create a pandemic, or they might cause economic chaos through hacking into our banking system, wiping out our savings and means of economic livelihood. They could shut down the internet or use it to foment a civil war. Again, it is difficult to see how a handgun could prevent these scenarios.

If we wanted to ask the question in a different way, we might ask what weapons have been the most successful in unseating tyrants in recent history? Here the most successful tools have actually been freedom of assembly, and freedom of information. In the Arab Spring which brought down authoritarian governments throughout the Middle East, the main “weapons” used were Twitter, Facebook and other means of organizing demonstrations and sharing information among participants. Again, these revolutions were made not with conventional weapons, but with new technologies.

This is not to say that conventional weapons are never useful, but rather to cast doubt on the assertion that they are the only weapons at our disposal, or that in their absence we would be defenseless. A smart policy that regulated access to weapons by civilians, as well as better registration and warning systems, would not destroy democracy as we know it. But neither would virtually open access to every weapon give us the security we seek. We don’t need to abandon the Second Amendment, but perhaps it is time to rethink its meaning in society today.

Mary Manjikian is associate dean of the Robertson School of Government at Regent University and the author of “Cybersecurity Ethics: An Introduction.” A former U.S. Foreign Service officer, Manjikian served in The Netherlands, Russia, and Bulgaria and she was an external research associate at the U.S. Army War College.