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Thursday, June 30, 2005

Gun control, genocide, Darfur . . . and the Mormon experience

Dave Kopel writes today at Volokh, suggesting that government controls on gun ownership are contributing to human rights abuses in Zimbabwe.  He has similarly argued, along with others, that the genocide in places like Darfur is a result of gun control.

Proponents of this sort of argument suggest that if Darfur (Zimbabwe, Rwanda, etc) residents were armed, they would be able to fight back and prevent genocide.  Dave Kopel writes in the National Review that "the Darfur genocide — like the genocides in Rwanda, Srebrenica, Cambodia, and so many other nations in the last century — was made possible only by the prior destruction of [the right to bear arms]."

My own cultural history makes me doubtful of Kopel's argument. As I've stated earlier, I'm a Mormon, and my views on modern instances of genocide, like Darfur, are colored by the Mormon experience with armed persecution.

Mormons were heavily persecuted during the 1830s and 1840s.  A very condensed history of the persecution (thanks to Nate Oman for helping me get the details right; all errors are mine, not his) goes along these lines:

The church was founded in 1830 in New York state, and quickly came under intense persecution.  Mormons were killed and driven out by armed mobs, first from New York and then from Ohio.  They fled Ohio for cities in Missouri and Illinois.

The roots of Mormon persecution are complex.  The church was growing rapidly due to missionary work, and tended to enter new communities with a large influx of newcomers.   Mormons were perceived to pose political and economic threats to other residents because they often voted together.

Mormon beliefs were also controversial -- starting with a belief in a living prophet and new scriptures, and eventually expanding to include beliefs in polygamy and in communal ownership of property.  Mormon millenialism was also a factor: Mormons tended to believe that Christ's return was imminent and that He would vent His wrath on the "Gentiles" (as non-Mormons were called) -- a belief that didn't much endear them to the locals.  In addition, some of the persecution in some states, such as Missouri, arose from racial strife -- Mormons were abolitionists, and Missourians saw them as a threat to the "peculiar institution." Finally, a good deal of persecution everywhere no doubt stemmed from old-fashioned avarice.  Successful persecution meant freedom to seize Mormon land, loot Mormon property, and rape Mormon women, and that goal motivated greedy mobs to attack Mormon settlements. 

In any case, the Mormons did not find a safe haven in either Missouri or Illinois.  They were instead driven out of both states, within a few years, suffering massive losses of life along the way.  Church founder Joseph Smith was imprisoned by complicit government officials and then assassinated by a mob, and other church leaders were imprisoned, attacked, or killed.  Across both states, Mormon homes were burned, families killed, women raped, property seized.

And this expulsion took place despite the right to bear arms, which the Mormons used in vain.

The failure of the right to bear arms to protect the Mormons is instructive. The Mormon settlers armed themselves, formed protective militias, and planned defenses. They organized the Nauvoo Legion, which was a powerful local army. At many points in time, the Mormon militias including the Nauvoo Legion outnumbered the anti-Mormon militias in size and armament.

However, the powerful Mormon militias seldom engaged in pitched battle with their foes.  This was due to a number of factors.  First, church leaders were eager to defuse tensions and avoid a destructive all-out war with the anti-Mormons, so they held their own army in check much of the time.  Second, the anti-Mormons were at times successful in allying themselves with state and federal military units, knowing that the Mormons could not attack government troops without suffering unbearable political consequences.   (For example, Joseph Smith's assassination was made possible by the collaboration of local officials).  In addition, the anti-Mormon raiders sought to avoid direct combat with the Mormon militias, opting instead to ransack unprotected outlying settlements.  It was not until 1846, after the Mormon city of Nauvoo was being evacuated, that the militias actually met in battle. (At that time, due to the ongoing Mormon evacuation, the Mormons were badly outnumbered).

And so the Mormons were driven out of their cities in Missouri and Illinois, as thousands perished.   The right to bear arms did not enable them to protect their property, their families, or their lives.

Of course, there were instances in which Mormon guns helped some Mormon settlers survive. The threat of the Nauvoo Legion's power helped keep many of the raiders at bay for portions of the evacuation of the city of Nauvoo, for example, which no doubt prevented that retreat from causing an even greater loss of life.

Some settlers were aided by their guns in individual confrontations with anti-Mormons. Famous Mormon gunslinger Porter Rockwell made his name in part by killing anti-Mormon raiders and defending Mormon settlers.  Rockwell even, if one rumor is to be believed, tried to assassinate the rabidly anti-Mormon governor of Missouri -- a governor who had issued an "extermination order" stating that "the Mormons are to be driven from the state, or killed" -- and nearly succeeded.  (The governor's would-be assassin, who evaded pursuit and was never positively identified, succeeded only in injuring the governor.  Rockwell denied being the gunman; his defense was "He's still alive, a'int he?").

Overall, however, the right to bear arms didn't much protect the Mormons.  They were only eventually saved by the decisive actions of Brigham Young, who led the survivors out of the United States altogether, to live in unsettled territory in then-northern Mexico.

The Mormon experience makes me wonder about the confident assertions of Kopel and others that a right to bear arms could prevent genocide. Yes, it's possible that a right to bear arms would have saved oppressed groups in Rwanda or Cambodia or Darfur.  But I'm doubtful.  After all, that right couldn't even save an oppressed minority group right here in America.

Posted by Kaimi Wenger on June 30, 2005 at 04:44 PM in Current Affairs, Religion | Permalink


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I've noted before that I think Dave Kopel's argument in favor of guns for would-be genocide victims is very impressive--and this is coming from a definitive gun-skeptic. [Read More]

Tracked on Jun 30, 2005 8:56:55 PM

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Tracked on Jul 5, 2005 3:16:25 PM


Let's get our LDS History straight. (1) Haun's Mill was an unannounced attack against an LDS settlement, a raid, if you wish, against unorganized civilians, poorly equipped at the time to fight back. (2) The move to Illinois was at first welcomed by the government thereof, on the assumption that LDS members would "vote as a block" and therefor to curry favor with them would be to the political advantage of those that made them welcome. That didn't end up being the case. (3) The LDS Church is a church, not an organized militia, dispite the existance of the Legion at Navoo. The killing of Joseph Smith was a political, not military action, and no military action was taken against the Saints, it was mob rule that led to their expulsion, something that they could only do their best to protect themselves from largely on an individual basis. Imagine trying this for yourself sometime, armed or unarmed. (4) The Saints left Navoo to avoid further persecution as opposed to facing any further conflict, which would not have served their purpose as a people called upon to teach the restored gospel to others. (5) The so called "Winter War" was not won through a "scoarched earth" policy. LDS forces first surrounded, then cut off, and then captured critical supplies belonging to the US Army, forcing them to abandon thier march on Salt Lake City and to take refuge for the winter elsewhere. (6) The officials in Salt Lake negotiated a peace with the US Army the following year, which permitted the latter to maintain their dignity by marching thru the streets (largely ignored by the LDS people) and setting up camp on the outskirts of town. (7) Eventually, having no one to fight, the US Army pulled up stakes and left, "donating" much of their artillery to the Saints by throwing it down well shafts, from which it was immediately recovered. (8) The Saints survive unto this day, largely a "government within a government" as it believes that its religion is more important than who they serve the Lord under, be that kings, magistrates, etc. (9) It is not merely having arms that is important, it is knowing when it is most prudent to use them, or to take other actions regarding ones survival. To quote and old Revolutionary war poem - "He who fights and runs away, shall live to fight another day, but he who is in battle slain, shall never rise to fight again"

Get it boys and girls ? The "Mormons" are still here. They sealed their testimony of the restored gospel in thier blood. They literaly left the United States due to religious persecution though they were supposed to be protected against it by the First Amendment to the Constitution. Instead of doing that, thier government turned against them, sending armed forces West against them Still no "war" took place. They remained "prudent" (not to mention alive) as was prescribed by our forefathers in the original Declaration of Independence, and were long suffeing to bring about a change in our government that eventually has led to their protection, that today has resulted not in thier liquidation by federal troops, but thier ability to carry out thier first obligation to Teach the Gospel to all nations, kindred and tonges.

Today the "Mormons" enjoy the liberty of doing just that, as well as continuing to grow in numbers at a steady rate. They seek no more for themselves than to attempt to achieve the state of perfection that has been commanded of all men by none other than God himslef. And, according to ancient practices and current belief, to be able to offer the same opportnities to all mankind, both living and dead - a matter of free agency of both, as the intent and purpose of the members of the LDS Church is but to carry out those missions of the Church - not to force others to believe, or act as they do.

It is written that there is a time and a place for everything under the sun. The trick seems to be in knowing when and where that might be. For my money the LDS Church, its leadership and its members, often dispite outward appearances, have done a very credible job in that respect.

So perhaps the provision of firearm to the people of Darfur might aid them in establishing thier civil rights as human beings - or it might not - depends not so much on the weapons as it does the determination of the people themselves. Learn this lesson well - you can not buy or win freedom for others - you can but temporarily aid them to do so for themselves by lifting the yoke of oppression from them long enough to band together, under arms if necessary, to fight those who would enslave them. But the one fact that is for certian is this - they will have no way of ever having the slightest hope of preventing the genocide of their people, if they have no means to resist.

It is for this reason, that the US will not sign on with any unilateral "gun bans" as proposed by the United Nations, nor subjugate the right of its own citizens to keep and bear arms by making it possible for foreign nations to dictate to the US what those right might be.

Understand this also. The United States of America is unique among nations. From the beginning, using firearms to unshackle ourselves from tyranny was a calculated risk to which our forefathers committed thier very lives and fortunes. In fact we lost many a battle before we finally won the war - apparently both our forefathers and the LDS (many of whom are one and the same) understood that, better than many of you understand it today.

Exactly how and when, or if or not, those firearms might be employed is a matter of discreation, as the objective is not to confront an enemy at every given opportunity and face total annihaltion, but to survive to carry out one's utltimate objectives. The British are gone, the sons of Liberty still occupy this land, the US Army left Utah without a shot being fired (except at one unfortunate horse), and the LDS likewise remain - and their ultimate objectives are still being carried out on a world wide basis - even, as impossible as it once seemed not five decades ago - behind the Berlin Wall and behind the Iron Curtain itself in a nation who's government once dictated that their subjects accept atheism as their only common creed.

As it is currently being carried out, this discussion is pointless. For you are talking about guns as though they are the answer to a problem - they are not - they are merely a tool where by an oppressed people may forceably solve a problem in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds, if they have the desire and the determination to committ ALL that they have to that proposition - just as did the forefathers of the nation in which we now live.

The guns by themselves provide no gurantees of life, liberty, or the persuit of happiness, only a way for men who wish to shed the yoke of tyranny to win and maintain the same. Many have tried, some have succeeded, others have failed - just count yourself fortunate that you live in a nation where the committment and the determination of your forefathers was such that you now have the liberty to freely express your opinions on this forum.

And that's all I have to say about that ...

Posted by: Forrest Gump | Mar 1, 2007 3:57:35 AM

Um, Ross,

What a strange comment.

Let's see: I addressed specific claims made on other blogs, which suggested that arming people in Darfur would prevent genocide there. I pointed out that the presence of a legal armed population didn't prevent killings and group expulsion in America. That's the extent of my post. I wasn't talking about pilgrims, L.A. gangs, or the NRA; I was addressing a specific claim -- that provision of guns to civilians would prevent genocide in Darfur -- and noting why I have my doubts as to that claim.

You've said nothing to make me reconsider that view. This is probably because your comment didn't address any of the substance of my post.

Posted by: Kaimi | Sep 5, 2006 6:48:08 PM

I believe this anti-gun blurb is one of the most ignorant I have ever read. It shows a complete ignorance of the history of Missouri and the other border states. It completely overlooks the fact that the Mormons tried not to get into violent confrontations most of the time. Beside the fact that the Mormons were outnumbered by the populations of the surrounding towns, cities, regions, and states they realized that open warfare would only result in the death of many people, Mormon and non-Mormon. How Haun's Mill might have been different under armed and aware circumstances we will never know, but I bet it would have been a bit different.

This ignorant diatribe shows a complete disregard for the 12th Article of Faith, the Constitution, and the right of free men to protect themselves and their families. The Constitution that you so flippantly dismiss is covered by that Article of Faith. It is also a right the English Pilgrims brought here from England--read a little history and learn.

As is usually the case, this is a "feel good" philosophy that accomplishes nothing but disarming the innocent and letting the predators go unstopped. As is seen every day in the news criminals already spit in the face of the law, and get away with it because our left-wing courts don't apply the law as it should be done. Thugs and murderers get away with awful crimes every day, just ask O.J. Simpson,and many others. We cannot depend on either the police or the courts to protect us, and it's getting worse every day. Gangs like MS-13 in Los Angeles, and many other towns and cities, "own" entire neighborhoods where they take extortion money from small business, and kill people who "cross their path" in a way they don't like. Some of their killers being as young as 8 years old. This is only going to get worse with nothing being done at the borders. Of course, the corrupt politicians in Los Angeles are strongly anti-gun, but not against the criminals whom they protect with lenient courts and shyster lawyers.

One only has to look in the monthly magazine of the National Rifle Association to read stories of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people over the years who have used their right to bear arms to keep themselves, and others, from physical danger, rape, and robbery. I have friends who have protected themselves with their gun. Not a one of them had to fire; just the knowledge that my friends had a gun was enough to deter the perpetrators from their intended act.

A few readings in history, but not from the public school systems or universities, might enlighten you. Your opinion flys in the face of common sense, something which you of the left wing don't know much about.

Posted by: Ross | Sep 5, 2006 6:19:22 PM

Kaimi: Your analogy is very inapositive. First, as you note, the Mormon leadership decided _not_ to use the guns they had. Kopel, Lott, et al. are making a different claim; that guns can make a difference. Obviously, if the gun owners, as a group or individuals, choose not to use them...the gunds don't help as they predict/prescribe. Second, and further, the fact that the Mormon communities were armed is probably the only thing that prevented them from being slaughtered outright instead of driven into the West. Personally, I'm rather happy that the 2nd Amendment (and maybe divine intervention) prevented what very well could have been the first genocide of the modern era.

Sum: Bad example which doesn't answer their theory, and may even reinforce its validity. Try, try again.

Posted by: lyle | Jul 1, 2005 12:40:24 AM

The argument put forth by people like Kopel and John Lott is completely repudiated by the example of Iraq. When Saddam was in power, the Iraqi citizenry was among the most heavily armed in the world. And yet they were nonetheless unable to fight back (in any significant way) against the brutality of Saddam and the Ba'ath party. Here's a fascinating article from the Christian Science Monitor from March 10, 2003 (i.e. right before the invasion) on this very subject. Given what's happened in the past two+ years, the article is incredibly ominous:
The sense of impending conflict means business is picking up at the capital's 43 gun shops, even though they are only licensed to sell hunting guns or pistols. Customers are stockpiling bullets or shotgun cartridges, says Wiham Ghazi of the "Free Bird" gun shop, whose 12-gauge shotguns and .22 caliber rifles hang from gun racks on the wall of his shop, emanating a faint scent of gun oil.
"It's our culture that people keep guns in their houses - it's inherited from our grandfathers," says Mr. Ghazi, sorting through an array of pistol bullets. Among the ammunition selection is a 12.7mm bullet for a heavy machine gun, with the red-painted tip of a tracer that burns bright as it flies.
"People are buying these kinds of guns just to protect themselves, in case of conflict," Ghazi says, adding that one customer Saturday morning came in looking for bullets for his father's .45 caliber pistol, which had been "put aside for years."
To explain their bond with weapons, Iraqis are fond of the modernized version of one traditional saying: "Give everything to your friend, except your car, your wife, and your gun."
I'm curious as to how Kopel can explain this away...

Posted by: Yuval Rubinstein | Jun 30, 2005 8:35:20 PM


But having a gun doesn't guarantee one a victory of sorts, it gives one a chance of surviving the fight, however slim that may be. A good example is the British troops attempting to take away the munition depot at Lexington and Concord, yet, American militiamen ambushed them, killing some, thus the beginning of Revolutionary War.

If Mormons didn't have guns, would they have Utah to start with? I think not. They would give up on their religion or water it down to what is acceptable to the society of that time period. Mormons may have lost the "war," but it gave them the fighting chance to survive and prosper in some ways.

That's why I believe guns are still valid today and I'm happy the Second Amendment is still in place!

Posted by: Dan | Jun 30, 2005 8:12:46 PM

Giving people guns is also a potentially dangerous long-term gambit. Always remember that the guns can be turned against you and your interests. (See Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden.) My point is not to deny them guns and make them defenseless, but rather just that you need a better long term strategy than "give them guns."

Posted by: Hillel Levin | Jun 30, 2005 7:16:55 PM


It's my impression that the Winter War settlement was largely the product of Brigham Young's scorched-earth tactics, which prevented the army from finding any provisions in Utah in the winter -- a very effective weapon.

But in any case, even if Mormon guns were vital to the Winter War, your argument then becomes "just give them guns, and they'll be able to negotiate a settlement with the feds -- after they've been looted and ransacked and raped and pillaged and driven completely out of the country, into uncharted desert that no one cares about anyway."

I think that the argument as used by Kopel and others suggests that gun ownership would have a little more protective force than this-will-help-protect-you-in-your-mountain-hideaway-after-you're-driven-from-the-country-by-mobs.

Posted by: Kaimi | Jun 30, 2005 5:29:34 PM

After the Mormons fled to Utah, their ability to bring the US Army to a negotiated settlement in the Winter War was greatly aided by the guns they owned.

Posted by: Adam Greenwood | Jun 30, 2005 4:56:47 PM

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