Consider a future America in which a democratically elected Government has turned into a de facto dictatorship; crushing civil rights, forcing through legislation designed to overturn the due process of government and removing their opponents through violence and intimidation. Where the upper echelons of the military are in support of the regime, and in fact may as well be considered to be part of it - it is highly unlikely such a state could arise without complicity from the military. And despite the fact that such a government would likely attempt to enact restrictive gun laws, the sheer amount of weaponry available in the US means that such measures are likely to have far less impact than intended, leaving a significant proportion of the populace with access to guns.
In short, imagine an America going through what Zimbabwe is going through now. This is the situation in which gun advocates say that the ownership of guns means that the ordinary citizens can rise up and overthrow their government. And although the overwhelming offensive and defensive might of the military compared to citizens would at first seem to ensure the failure of any such uprising, a good argument can be made that since the soldiers (and members of other armed forces - police, FBI, ATF, DEA etc. which I am lumping in with the military) themselves are volunteers and citizens they would not support the brutal measures required to put down a revolt but would be more likely to switch sides.
However this argument fails to take into account any of the complexities of such a situation and how they affect exactly what the military would and wouldn't do. Events such as those on the 4th of May, 1970 at Kent State University or on February 28th, 1993 at Waco show that even under a relatively benign government armed forces can and will act against civilian groups when they feel threatened or feel that they are doing their jobs and protecting other people or their country. Given the recent developments after September 11 it is clear that actions such as these, dressed up in the correct manner by media spin doctors, could potentially be supported by a large proportion of the population, and hence the military, for a long time.
A planned uprising
Firstly consider the situation in which a group of people are planning a revolution, much as happened in the American War of Independence. While all oppressive governments have gathered intelligence about their citizens activities, it seems likely that none of them would have had the resources and ability to do so that the US Government even currently has. In the event of a group trying to organise a rebellion, keeping the group and their preparations secret would most likely require the exact same organisational structure used by terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda - multiple cells each kept ignorant of each other, and all communication strictly through secure means.
Would this be enough to keep such a group secret? It worked for the al-Qaeda members who carried out the terrorist attacks on September 11, but at that point intelligence operations were aimed at other types of threat. Since then however, legislation like the PATRIOT Act have focussed an unprecedented amount of intelligence gathering on America itself, and in the event of an oppressive regime it seems that this would be taken even further, with the focus being widened to enemies of the regime as well as the threat of terrorists and criminals.
I personally find it unlikely that such an operation, if it were to be of sufficient size and resources to be effective, would be able to completely avoid detection by intelligence operations. And once the government knows about it, more and more resources can be seconded to infiltrate the organisation, until a significant proportion is most likely compromised. And again the very nature of this group makes it vulnerable to being portrayed as a terrorist organisation, which can then be dismantled and its members interrogated for "the good of the nation." In fact the government will probably already have taken out potential troublemakers through a series of arrests or disappearances, making it less likely that there are effective leaders for such an operation.
A popular uprising
No, what I think is more likely to have any chance of succeeding is a popular uprising by the people, in which the level of oppression has reached the point where a majority of the population are directly being oppressed. In this case there would be no preparations for an uprising and no leadership or tactics other than those that come to light at the time of the revolution itself. It may unlikely that a spontaneous mass uprising could occur, but given that before a single event has had consequences far beyond what anybody would have expected, and in the type of tense oppressive atmosphere we are talking about here a single spark could be enough to cause people to turn their guns against their government.
To break this scenario down into a simple model we need to consider several factors - the initial flashpoint, the rate of spread of the uprising and the willingness of the military to suppress it.
- Initial flashpoint
- It seems likely that the initial flashpoint will come from some minor incident happening at the right place and the right time - a demonstration broken up violently or someone being arrested or killed would seem to be likely suspects. In order for this to have the initial momentum it needs to be somewhere with a lot of people around and where word can spread very quickly, and as such it is likely to occur in an urban area somewhere, as has been the case for all of the major riots across the world. And an uprising in an urban landscape means that much of the firepower of the military is rendered useless, making any armed confrontations between citizens and military forces much more equal than they would be in an open landscape.
- Rate of spread
- The key question here is how quickly the uprising spreads, because if it spreads quickly enough then more and more uprisings will occur until they are beyond the ability of military forces to contain easily. The more brutal the means required to put down the uprisings, the greater the chance that the ordinary members of the military will refuse to carry out their orders and either stand aside or join the uprisings. From the government's point of view, it is necessary to keep any potential rebellion as small as possible in order to be able to deal with it.
While the initial flashpoint can spread quickly within the area it starts in through word of mouth it must then spread beyond that area in order to avoid being contained and ended quickly. In order for it to spread communication must be possible between different areas of the country, something which at first seems to be trivially obvious. But already the US government has begun to implement much tighter controls over communications networks and it seems likely that under the scenario here there would be systems in place to disrupt public communications networks - the Internet, the phone system (both mobile and landline) and so on. Undoubtedly these measures would be implemented as soon as possible in the event of serious trouble, preventing communications between urban hotspots.
Another source of information is the media, but recent events have shown that even without active censorship the major media outlets in the US are willing to suppress news not deemed in the government's interests, and in the event of an oppressive regime it seems likely that this partnership would continue to deepen. Since their fortunes are tied to those of the current regime's, it would be highly unlikely that there would be any news broadcasts of the uprising either.
However despite all of this news will spread of the events - there is simply no way to prevent every possible attempt at communication. The rate at which it spreads however, will depend on the number and openness of methods of communication - an argument indeed for keeping things like the Internet as open as possible.
- Military resolve
- The military structure and training emphasises the command structure and following the orders that you are given. Given the support from the highest levels of the military for the current regime it is likely that these forces would be used in "police actions" against insurgents, and that they as long as these actions were kept below a certain critical level of size and brutality and could be justified the ordinary military would go along with these orders. However what the military wouldn't stand for is the wholesale massacre of citizens required to fully suppress a major uprising, and so this factor also includes how far the government is willing to go to remain in power. Ideally for them they would order the minimum level of force necessary to restore order, but history has shown that tyrants often go overboard when stamping out threats to their position, using maximum brutality and following that up with retribution against anyone indirectly connected with the uprising.
For the government the aim is to use the military to stop any uprising while at the same time keeping control over their forces. In order to do this they must first keep the uprisings as small as possible, but additionally they would want to represent the disturbances to the military as being the work of agitators and enemies of the state rather than as part of a general uprising. The fact that we are talking about an armed uprising here works in favour of the government - since being shot at and killed is likely to immediately turn the military against those attacking it. Additionally the government is likely to restrict communications between military forces to prevent them from realising the scale of the uprisings.
The combination of the three factors discussed above will determine whether or not an uprising will succeed, or whether it will be crushed by military might, and these would seem to rely on how long the government has to entrench their position before an uprising. The longer they remain in power, the more control they will have over every aspect of society, and the more hardened the military will become. The role of an armed populace here is important in the second and third aspects. The use of deadly force against the military will work against a revolution, as it will increase their resolve to suppress those attacking them, but on the other hand the use of weaponry will mean that each individual uprising takes longer to suppress, meaning that there will be more time for the uprising to spread.
My conclusion is that the second factor is less important than the third. Events across the world have shown that successful uprisings work because of the will of the people rather than armed might. An armed uprising resulting in battles between the military and citizens is only likely to decrease the chance of the military joining an uprising, and unless one side achieves a swift victory the result is all too often the kind of long and bloody civil war that has decimated countries across the world. Revolution is far more likely to succeed without the aid of guns; an armed society is not any more free from tyranny than any other.