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.

A quick scan through the list continues the point. Chile (10.7) comes in with the same arms rate as Venezuela, but the nations present starkly divergent civil freedoms. Russia (8.9) is slightly more armed than Ireland (8.6). The Netherlands (3.9) is on par, as far as weapons go, with oppressive Turkmenistan (3.8). Israel and Georgia see the same arms rate as Iran and Belarus and yet exist on opposite ends of Freedom House's rank.

Some are developed democracies. Some are theocratic or secular autocracies. The number of Bushmasters and Berettas per populace plays a negligible role.

"This relationship between gun rates and [democracy] isn't based upon social science - it's based upon philosophy," said Aaron Karp, a political science professor at Old Dominion University and one of the Small Arms Survey's senior consultants. "Part of the reason why people who are advocates of individual gun rights tend to be opposed to social science is that they're not comfortable with it."

Still, there are those such as Thiess and Mobley who cite America's revolutionary roots as reason enough to warrant our weaponry. The colonies' muskets and blunderbusses were the only things that tossed King George's yoke. If a widely armed populace isn't necessarily required to maintain democracy, then at least it's a requisite for revolution.

The data deflates that argument, too, though. As it is, ten nations among the survey's bottom 26 gun owners -- from Niger and Togo to Fiji and the Central African Republic -- have undergone anti-autocracy movements and governmental shifts within the past decade. But only seven nations within the survey's top eighty most-armed nations, including Iraq, have experienced similar movements since 2003. As for the nation with the lowest civilian arms rate in the world? That honor belongs to Tunisia, which sparked the greatest set of pro-democracy revolutions this century.

One nation which helps highlight this continued disconnect is Kyrgyzstan, which the survey pegs at 0.9 arms per 100 civilians, or 153rd on the list. The mountainous Central Asian enclave has experienced a pair of democratic revolutions over the past eight years, with 2005's Tulip Revolution overturning longtime president Askar Akayev and installing Kurmanbek Bakiyev, whose corrupt apparatus was later forced out in 2010.

A year after Bakiyev's ouster, Kyrgyzstan hosted the first Central Asian election in which the winner was not predetermined. Moreover, the nation currently maintains the best Central Asian rank within Freedom House's tabulations -- all while seeing one of the lowest rates of armed citizenry in the world.

"I never linked personal firearm ownership rates and political change in Kyrgyzstan," said Erica Marat, a Central Asian researcher at Johns Hopkins University. "I doubt personal firearm ownership plays any role in the democratization process. This is clearly a purely American line of thought."

As it is, the perceived link between the right to arms and democratic freedoms remains strong -- hence, Manchin-Toomey's recent defeat. "The Second Amendment is liberty's teeth," Thiess says. "The First Amendment has no teeth unless we have ability to fight back against repression. And the only way to prevent repression sometimes means taking up arms."

In Texan towns and counties now forcing officials to ignore federal statutes, the reality hangs that the only thing keeping Japanese carriers and American Predators from turning their sights toward our mainland are those few clauses still contained within the Second Amendment - data and social science be damned.