By Rowan Kane
If Ukrainians can rein in their government without guns, Americans can, too.
The lesson of the last several days’ events in Ukraine is clear: The 2nd amendment of the United State constitution is unnecessary and outdated.
By nearly any measure, the Ukraine is not a stable democracy. As an independent country, it is just over two decades old, its constitution has undergone fundamental changes over the last decade, and it is ethnically and linguistically torn, making its national politics contentious, to say the least. Back in December, a WaPo article painted this parallel; “Ukraine’s ethno-linguistic political division is sort of like the United States’ ‘red America’ and ‘blue America’ divide, but in many ways much deeper — imagine if red and blue America literally spoke different languages.” Combine these tensions with the polarizing pull of Russia on one side, Europe on the other and a strong nationalist sentiment somewhere in between. Furthermore, during his administration, now former-President Viktor Yanukovych expanded powers of his office (part of the fundamental changes I just mentioned) and continued the endemic corruption that placed Ukraine 144th out of 177 countries.
Now, if you’ve been reading the news over the past week or were tuned in when the original protests started back in November, you would know those basics. You’ve also probably been impressed by the enormous bravery of the protestors who, in recent days and weeks, have stood their ground against thousands of trained riot police and live ammunition with little more than home-made shields and clubs and improvised armor and you probably wouldn’t really blame them for taking up guns themselves as some reports suggested they did at the height of the violence. But while Russian media reported that ‘radicals’ seized a stock of firearms, the vast majority of protestors never laid hands on a firearm because Ukraine restricts individual firearm ownership to the point that there are only 6.6 guns for every 100 Ukrainian citizens. To put that in context, there are 15.82 guns for every 100 citizens in the European Union and 101.05 guns for every 100 American citizens.
As the clashes continued around the Maidan, The Daily Beast reported that gun rights advocates in the US were using that lack of Ukrainian firearm ownership to further their beliefs that gun ownership is a “God-given right” and that any restriction is a step towards tyranny. In the same article, Erich Pratt of Gun Owners of America was asked whether “more relaxed gun laws in Ukraine have helped protestors,” he answered, “We certainly think it would have a chilling effect on the government… The beauty of firearms is that they’re the last resort against government oppression. Still, tyrants don’t like people being able to point guns back at them.” As it stands, this is an accurate, albeit stark, interpretation of the Second Amendment.
Since the climax of the fighting on Feb. 20th, the Ukraine has slowly backed away from what, at times, seemed to be pending civil war. Parliament has voted to remove President Yanukovych from office and put out a warrant for his arrest. It has also released opposition leader and former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoschenko from prison and reinstituted the constitutional limits on the presidency Yanukovych overrode after his election. While many questions remain, at least one has been definitely answered: Does a public need guns to resist a tyrannical government? It does not.
According to a Gallup poll published last fall, American trust in government on domestic and international affairs is at an “historic low.” Perhaps not surprisingly, Republican trust in government has gone from 66% to 29% on domestic problems and 81% to 35% on international problems from 2007 to 2013. This mistrust is often articulated in terms similar to Erich Pratt’s statement on tyrants, specifically, that governments should be afraid of their people not the other way around and are often accompanied, as Pratt’s is, with citations of Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, and Communist North Korea as examples of governments that take away gun rights and then kill millions of people. Scare tactics aside, these examples are not historically wrong; they are just vastly outweighed by the number of times where guns were not needed to effect deep political change. Ukraine is just the latest example.
That deep mistrust of government policy aside, Americans should, at the very least, be able to trust the system of government laid out in what has become a sacred document, the Constitution. A vital part of that system of government is the ability to amend it as times change and an amendment to the Constitution abolishing the Second Amendment is long overdue. The Second Amendment, as it was written[i], was not intended for personal defense but rather common defense of the system of government. This was the legal precedent until a 2008 Supreme Court decision (District of Columbia vs. Heller) ruled that an individual’s right to possess a firearm extended to self-defense, which overrode a 1939 decision (United States vs. Miller), which had ruled in favor of common defense[ii]. It is this 2008 decision that allows for the spread of the controversial “Stand Your Ground” laws, made (in)famous by George Zimmerman and, more recently, Michael Dunn.
Aside from the newly enshrined self-defense arguments and basic American civics lessons, recent international events like those in Ukraine, as well as in Egypt, Tunisia, and dozens of other countries have proven that guns are simply not necessary for political protest and change in today’s age. If Americans would prefer to cite their own history, look no further than the greatest tyranny perpetrated by an American government in the last century: Jim Crow laws. These were overturned not by guns, but almost entirely by non-violent protest. For the past several decades, governments, especially in the developed world, are vastly less likely to use deadly force on protestors. If they did, and when they do, powerful societal norms (many of them emanating rather ironically from the armed to the teeth-U.S.) turn against them along with international institutions, not to mention international public opinion. When that happens governments either back down and negotiate (Ukraine, Tunisia etc.) or, in rare cases, civil war breaks out. This is what happened most recently in Syria and Libya. I think every American would agree that our government is a way’s removed from Assad and Gadhafi.
The Second Amendment was written at a time when a young nation had not yet proven itself to be a democracy let alone a stable and independent country. In 1789 when the Bill of Rights was written, America’s institutions were weak and likewise untested, and its leaders had very differing opinions on the role of a central government, a debate that remains prominent in our time. With that in mind, an amendment that provided for local defense and insurance against tyranny, which the young nation had supposedly just defeated, was probably a good idea. In fact it was a lot like Ukraine is right now. But today, after over two centuries of proven stability (with a small, four-year rupture), there is no need for states or other localities to have independent men-at-arms in order to safeguard our democracy. In other words, the Second Amendment is not what is holding the United States together and it is time that, like Viktor Yanukovych, it be consigned to the history books.
[i] A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.
[ii] Common defense being, that which is associated with a “well regulated militia”. See note i.