Owning Guns Doesn't Preserve Freedom

Studies show there is very little correlation between heavily armed citizens and the presence of democracy in countries around the world.
A police officer removes the cylinder of a revolver handed in by a resident during the "Voluntary Disarmament Programme" at the Azcapotzalco district in Mexico City on April 8, 2013. (Reuters)

After League City, Texas, became the first city in the state to pass a resolution effectively nullifying federal gun regulations in February, Councilwoman Heidi Thiess, who speared the motion, shared a quote. "Gen. Isoroku Yamamoto, who was the commander of Japan's WWII Combined Fleet, was asked why he never bothered to invade the U.S. after Pearl Harbor," she remarked. "And you know what he said? 'You can't invade mainland United States. There would be a rifle behind each blade of grass.'"

It didn't matter that the quote is almost certainly false. The sentiment remains: The tether between that right to bear arms and the safety of liberal democracy is as real post-Newtown as it was following Pearl Harbor. And now that a handful of cities and counties across Texas have passed similar measures barring local officials from enforcing federal legislation, the link between your Glock and your unbridled freedoms becomes inseparable. "The Second Amendment was never meant for hunting, although that's what's been said over generations," Thiess continued. "It was a means of defense. Yes, self-defense, but also defense against our own government."

Of course, it's difficult to imagine that a government as notably militarized as our own would be cowed by the rifle and .45 gathering dust in the closet. (Likewise, it's tough to posit the 110,000 Asian-Americans forced into internment camps during WWII -- "concentration camps," as President Roosevelt termed them -- felt their liberties were buttressed by their ability to own a sawed-off shotgun.) But regardless, that's where the argument stands. That's the rhetoric to which 65 percent of Americans ascribe .

"That's what separates this country," noted Brian Mobley, a concealed handgun trainer in League City, which also boasts the highest number of concealed-gun licenses in Texas. "We're the most heavily armed country in the world, but we're also the freest country in the world."

Fortunately, we can assess such an argument not through historic hagiography and patriotic revision, but through the facts at hand. If such a right correlates so directly with democratic freedoms within America, such realities should exist elsewhere, correct?

Not exactly. Compiling data from the most recent Small Arms Survey (SAS), the most wide-ranging international survey of civilian gun ownership, and the Freedom House Index, which tabulates both political rights and civil liberties, it's apparent that the correlation between democratic structures and a well-armed citizenry is, at best, slight. Here's the Freedom House index, in red (a higher ranking means less freedom), compared with the number of guns, in blue:

Gun Rates Revolution Final Chart.png

According to Dr. Justin Silver, a statistical researcher at Rice University, the Spearman correlation between the two tallies is only -0.33. (Such correlation is negative because Freedom House, via a one-through-seven scale, tacks a lower score to nations with greater freedoms.) The relationship is observable, but minor.

"I don't see any trend," said Arch Puddington, vice president of research at Freedom House. "Press freedom, the freedom of expression, is a pretty good indicator of the direction a country is going in -- if leadership is circumscribing the freedom of expression, the likelihood is that they're doing other unworthy things as well." But a link between an armed citizenry and democratic realities? "That's baloney."

Unsurprisingly, those who stake such a relationship often limit the nations they cite. The gun-toting United States (88.8 civilian guns per 100 residents, according to SAS) and Switzerland (45.7) are typically juxtaposed with the relatively gun-free China (4.9) and Cuba (4.8) as sufficient proof that a populace needs to amass arms in order to keep one's government at bay.

But regardless of how often the maxim is repeated, such cherry-picking obfuscates the reality that the U.S., Switzerland, China, and Cuba are but a handful of the 175 nations for which we have comprehensive data. Just because these four countries fit within a pro-weaponized argument does not lend it legitimacy. After all, Ghana (0.4) and Indonesia (0.5), both within the bottom 10 of the world's gun-owners, were each tabbed as "Free" by Freedom House, while the heavily-armed Yemen (54.8) and Saudi Arabia (35.0) remain among the most repressive countries in the world.

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Casey Michel is a reporter with the Houston Press and a former Peace Corps Kazakhstan volunteer. He has written for Sports Illustrated, Guernica, and The Tuqay.

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