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SAIS Review 23.1 (2003) 305-309
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Democide and Disarmament
Don B. Kates
A series of articles advocating small arms and light weapons disarmament appeared in early 2002 issues of the SAIS Review and the Brown Journal of World Affairs. These articles share a common vision: a utopia in which only the military, the police, and select civilians are armed. (Note that this response addresses only small arms. Civilian possession of rocket-propelled grenades, mortars, and similar weapons is a very different matter.)
The most instructive of the SAIS Review and Brown Journal articles decries the incoherence of those seeking to restrict small arms ownership, pointing out that governments may endorse disarming their own people while still claiming the right to arm governments and dissidents in other nations. 1 Disarmament advocates have failed to learn the important lessons that the democides of the past one hundred years should have taught them. The term "democide," as coined by Professor R. J. Rummell, refers to all kinds of governmental mass murder of citizens, including "politicide" (the murder of political opponents), genocide, etc. 2 Insofar as firearms have been crucial in democides, the killers have been armed either by governments or were government agents themselves. 3
Prevailing arguments for disarmament are based on illogical foundations; when placed in the context of specific historical events, they often seem incoherent. The case of the Cambodian genocide illustrates how encouraging governments to limit small arms ownership can have terrible consequences. As the killing began, Cambodian soldiers undertook an extraordinary house-to-house search to confiscate weapons people could have used to defend themselves. A witness recounts that the soldiers would
knock on the doors and ask the people who answered if they had any weapons. "We are here now to protect you," the soldiers said, "and no one has a need for a weapon any more." People who said that they kept no weapons were [nevertheless] forced to stand aside and allow the soldiers to look for themselves. 4 [End Page 305]Of course, the soldiers, unlike disarmament theorists, did not actually believe this and they proceeded to slaughter approximately two million Cambodians.
This example is not unique; all twentieth century democides involved civilians disarmed either by long-standing gun bans or ones specially adopted to facilitate the killing. 5 Thus, the concept of disarming everyone except the government is completely backwards. Not including wars, governments murdered more than 170 million disarmed civilians in the twentieth century. 6
The efforts of disarmament advocates to keep guns out of the hands of apolitical criminals seem misplaced, given the fact that the number of crime victims over the past one hundred years is only a fraction of the number of victims of government-sponsored violence. Unfortunately, it is exceedingly difficult to disarm homicidal, lawless governments. Restricting gun ownership among civilians, however, never reduces murder rates, because those who should be disarmed often ignore gun laws, which only operate against harmless, law-abiding citizens. 7 Anti-gun theorists evade this truth by perpetrating a further myth: most murderers were previously law abiding and killed only because of access to guns in a moment of ungovernable rage. But homicide studies from the United States and elsewhere uniformly show that murderers "almost always have a long history of involvement in criminal behavior," and that "the vast majority of persons involved in life-threatening violence have a long criminal record with many prior contacts with the justice system." 8 In addition, studies indicate that "in almost every case murderers are aberrants exhibiting life histories of violence and crime, psychopathology, substance abuse, and other dangerous behaviors." 9
Evidence shows that lowering rates of gun ownership does not lead to lower murder rates. For example, though murder rates are far higher among African-Americans than whites in the United States, the overall African-American gun ownership rate is lower. 10 The lesson here is that the low rate of gun possession by harmless African-Americans has no benefit because they do not murder. In addition, the low rate of gun ownership within the group as a whole does not prevent...