One of the commonly argued myths used against gun control is that civilian gun ownership is necessary to prevent or overthrow dictators. The assertion goes that if someone like Hitler were to ever try to take over the country, it would be the armed populace that would take him down and preserve freedom and democracy. This argument is offered with the assumption of fact without any actual analysis or reality test. It is often accepted as true without any attempt to see if the claim holds up, and gets passed around as if it were the definitive argument in the discussion.
The problem is, if you actually took a substantive look at research and actual history, this myth completely falls apart.
First, research is actually clear on this. When trying to overthrow a dictator, non-violent resistance is twice as effective as violent resistance. People who regard guns as the cure-all against dictatorships are actually praising the less effective option and doubling the possibility of keeping the dictator in power.
But since people are rarely swayed by facts and science, we also have history to look at to back this up.
Since Hitler is brought up most often as the prototype dictator, Nazi Germany is often brought up to support the myth of the armed civilian over-thrower of evil. However, as Jon Greenberg of Politifact points out, an actual analysis of history of Germany’s gun laws and gun politics destroys this myth. Despite the claims made in the myth, Hitler actually loosened gun regulations, instead of increasing them, to build his rise to power. When taking power in 1938, Hitler deregulated the buying and selling of rifles, shotguns, and ammunition. But even before that, the German people were already well armed. the 1928 gun control laws were not well enforced, and during the 1920’s, paramilitary groups sprouted up all over Germany. These armed civilian groups, however, contrary to the myth of armed citizenry, ended up being the backbone of the growth of the Nazi movement. They didn’t stop despotism, they enabled it, and if you look at the connections between paramilitary groups and white supremacy groups today, those same processes are still in play. And when the paramilitary groups became too difficult to control, the German SS easily destroyed them.
It is often then pointed out that the gun laws that still remained banned Jews from owning any weapons, and this gun regulation is what lead to the Holocaust. However, as Greenberg points out, despite regulations both before and after Hitler’s initial rise to power, Jews still were able to aquire and own firearms. If gun ownership itself were sufficient to prevent dictatorship, the problem would have solved itself. However, the problem that lead to the Holocaust had little to do with Jewish weapon possession, but with the German civilian permissiveness of and agreement with racial persecution. The remainder of Germany was still armed, and there were plenty of paramilitary groups that could have stepped in and stood up for their fellow Jewish Germans citizens.
But they didn’t.
In fact, they did the opposite. The armed civilians, did not prevent the Holocaust, they enabled it. The paramilitary groups protected Hitler in his rise and continued to support him until Hitler decided to get rid of them. Even if the Jews had moved like an army in response to Hitler, they would have been quickly defeated as they were still a minority in the country and the majority of the citizens were also armed and willing to treat them as a less than human group deserving of oppression. In the end, the Holocaust was not ended by an armed civilian force, but by a military coalition.
This bring us back to the research and what it says about overthrowing dictators in reality. According to the Stephan and Chenoweth study, dictators fall when a minimum of 3.5% is engaged in active resistance, and non-violent resistance achieves this more successfully. When you look at the world, both in the present and recent past, the reasons for this becomes quite apparent. First, dictators and despotism does rely on the will of the people. Dictators come into power because the people are convinced that they belong in power. Dictators start by wooing the people and only switch to oppression after their power is secured, and most of those oppressive policies move into place with the blessing of the people who are convinced it is only going to get used on some outgroup only to see its application expanded. Because people are still agreeing to hand over their rule step by step, initial violent resistance does not get a lot of support socially, often gets labeled as a terrorist organization, and can even empower fascist civilian groups, as we saw with the rise of the Brownshirts as we saw play out in Nazi Germany. Once people realize they tiptoed their way into despotic rule, it does become harder to violently oust them, as they now control the police and military who outgun them, and the political spin machine that can dissuade people from the resistance by labeling them a terrorist organization. In short, your violence becomes the easiest thing to use against you. But non-violent resistance is harder to suppress. Dictators know that they still rule at the will of the people, and suppression of non-violent protest is an act that can cause that to crumble down. They can’t move against the non-violent without carefully crafted strategies that can easily fall apart if exposed, especially in the modern information age. In addition, most people are averse to the idea of killing another person, and so violent resistance tends to dissuade recruitment. What this creates is an environment where the pivotal 3.5% tipping point is easier to reach non-violently. And once that point of active resistance is reached, the dictator topples.
In the end, the myth of the armed civilian protecting democracy is just a myth, but it is a myth that leaves people vulnerable to gun violence. Ultimately, history has shown that dictators rise and fall at the will of the people, and that armed civilian is more likely to put the dictator into power. Once the dictatorship is established, the armed civilian, if they realize the problem they welcomed, is outgunned by the government, and their chances of success are actually half as effective as non-violent mass resistance.