The argument that an armed citizenry cannot hope to overthrow a modern military machine flies directly in the face of the history of partisan guerilla and civil wars in the twentieth century. To make this argument (which is invariably supported, if at all, by reference only to the American military experience in non-revolutionary struggles like the two World Wars), one must indulge in the assumption that a handgun-armed citizenry will eschew guerrilla tactics in favor of throwing themselves headlong under the tracks of advancing tanks. Far from proving invincible, in the vast majority of cases in this century in which they have confronted popular insurgencies, modern armies have been unable to suppress the insurgents. This is why the British no longer rule in Israel and Ireland, the French in Indo-China, Algeria and Madagascar, the Portugese in Angola, the whites in Rhodesia, or General Somoza, General Battista, or the Shah in Nicaragua, Cuba and Iran respectively–not to mention the examples of the United States in Vietnam and the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. It is, of course, quite irrelevant for present purposes whether each of the struggles just mentioned is or was justified or whether the people benefitted therefrom. However one may appraise those victories, the fact remains that they were achieved against regimes equipped with all the military technology which, it is asserted, inevitably dooms popular revolt.
Perhaps more important, in a free country like our own, the issue is not really overthrowing a tyranny but deterring its institution in the first place. To persuade his officers and men to support a coup, a potential military despot must convince them that his rule will succeed where our current civilian leadership and policies are failing. In a country whose widely divergent citizenry possesses upwards of 160 million firearms, however, the most likely outcome of usurpation (no matter how initially successful) is not benevolent dictatorship, but prolonged, internecine civil war.
Don B. Kates Jr.
Handgun Prohibition and the Original Meaning of the Second Amendment
Michigan Law Review 82 (1983): 204-273.
[Via Proclaiming Liberty: What Patriots and Heroes Really Said About the Right to Keep and Bear Arms by Philip Mulivor.
This is along the same lines as what Lyle described as the Plausible Threat.
It’s worth noting that the estimate of 160 million firearms in the U.S. was in 1983. The estimate is nearly double that now.—Joe]