by Dave Kopel
Gun World, 1990. A more detailed examination of the subject, with footnotes and citations, is available in David B. Kopel, Paul Gallant and Joanne D. Eisen, Firearms Possession by 'Non-State Actors': The Question of Sovereignty, Texas Review of Law & Politics, Vol. 8, No. 2, pp. 373-436 (2004).
The Soviet Communist empire lurches closer to collapse every day. As this column is written in early January, there is no way to predict exactly what the crisis of Communism will bring in the next several months. What is clear already, however, is that Communists and other dictators are entirely correct in their fear of an armed populace.
With the exception of Rumania, the countries of the Warsaw Pact have so far made the transition from dictatorship to democracy without violence. Does this prove that in the modern world, the right to bear arms no longer has any relation to political liberty? Not at all.
The collapse of the Soviet empire did not begin in Grenada in 1983, or in Poland in 1980, but rather in Afghanistan in 1979. In December of that year, General Secretary Brezhnev ordered a surprise attack on the U.S.S.R.'s southern neighbor, to prop up a local Communist regime that was on the verge of being overthrown by Muslim guerrillas.
The Red Army quickly seized the cities and took control of the government. Most of the world expected that the Soviet conquest would be completed in a matter of weeks, and the Afghanistan itself would be absorbed into the U.S.S.R. as a Soviet "Republic."
But the Afghans, like the Swiss, are a proud and independent mountain people who have maintained their freedom for centuries through force of arms. The gun culture of Afghanistan is as strong as any on the planet. The Afghans had a long tradition of expert gunsmithing. Using tools inferior to those in the Sears catalogue, Afghan gunsmiths began turning out home-made versions of the Soviet army's Kalashnikov rifles. Pakistani gunsmiths across the border found a lucrative business in selling home-made guns to the rebels.
And the Afghan people knew how to use the guns. Explained one rebel commander to a New York Times reporter, "All tribesmen are trained in the use of guns from childhood, in their home villages."
The imperial Soviet army tried every trick in the book: carpet bombing, chemical warfare, anti-personnel explosives disguised as toys for children to pick up, crop destruction to starve the people into submission. Yet the "primitive" mountain people of Afghanistan fought the mightiest army in the history of the world to a draw for seven years. When the U.S. finally began providing Stinger missiles to the rebels in 1986, the Soviets lost control of the air. The Kremlin acknowledged that its imperial appetite was larger than its imperial capacity, and the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan began.
But it was too late for the Kremlin; the Afghan warriors had already set the dominos of the Soviet empire tumbling. In Poland in the early 1980s, the Solidarnosc movement began a social revolution. Union leader Lech Walesa credited the Afghan rebels with creating the essential breathing space for Solidarnosc. Bogged down in an unwinnable war in Afghanistan, the Soviet army was reluctant to undertake an invasion of Poland to crush Solidarnosc.
Within the Soviet Union, the failure of the invasion of Afghanistan fanned popular resentment against a regime that had sent its young men to die for nothing. Even Communist Party apparatchiks began to see that the Soviet military was not an infallible solution to Soviet problems.
In the closing months of 1989, the Soviet imperial decay reached an advanced stage, and Communist governments were peacefully ousted in Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Bulgaria. Private gun ownership had little to do with the change of power in these countries. In each country the economy was falling apart, and when the Gorbachev regime told the Eastern European Communists that they were on their own, the Communist governments yielded to the rising tide of popular demands.
Freedom was allowed to come to eastern Europe in 1989 thanks to the self-restraint of the Soviet army. Freedom could have come a generation ago, but was repeatedly crushed by the Red army: in East Germany in 1953, Hungary in 1956, and Czechoslovakia in 1968. One reason that the Soviet army succeeded in those bloody episodes of subjugation was that the people of East Germany, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia lacked the arms with which to fight a guerilla war. Had the Poles and Czechs and Hungarians been as well armed as the Afghans, Eastern Europe might not have had to wait till 1989 for permission from the Kremlin to be free.
Indeed, the best testimony to the power of an armed populace is the vigor with which the Warsaw Pact dictatorships enforced gun control. When the Communists took over Bulgaria on September 9, 1944, they immediately confiscated every weapon in private possession.
In East Germany, private gun ownership was outlawed, although citizens were allowed to rent hunting guns for one-day periods.
Immediately after World War II, Hungary was governed by a coalition of democrats and Communists. Preparing the way for a total Communist takeover Laszlo Rajk, the Communist Minister of the Interior, ordered the dissolution of all pistol and hunting clubs, as well as of other organizations which might prove a threat to government power. Rajk claimed he acted "in order to more efficiently protect the democratic system of the state."
Poland, on the other hand, did allow limited ownership of registered target guns with a license from the so-called "Citizen's Militia." In December 1981, Poland's dictator, General Jaruzelski, decided that Solidarnosc had gone too far. He declared martial law, arrested all the pro-democracy leaders he could find, and ordered all firearms and ammunition be turned over to the government.
Nowhere was gun control fiercer than in Rumania. The dictatorship of Nicolai Ceausescu used registration lists to confiscate all firearms in private hands. The government also registered (but did not confiscate) typewriters.
Ceausescu, the "Comrade Supreme Commander", enjoyed bear hunting with his Holland & Holland custom British rifle. The Securitate (the secret police) manufactured all of Ceausescu's clothes for him, including German-style hunting outfits. Each item of clothing would be worn only once, and then burned.
Sportsmanship was not Ceausescu's style. Squads of Rumanian forest rangers would spend all their time preparing an area for a bear hunt. The rangers would tie down half of a dead horse near a watering hole. When a large bear began feeding there, the rangers would notify Ceausescu. He would arrive by helicopter at three a.m., and leave with a bear skin by five.
Frustrated by missing a few shots in the dark, Ceausescu had his security forces steal Western military infrared scopes, for his night-time hunting forays. High Communist party officials in other countries, such as East Germany and Czechoslovakia also enjoyed hunting, and maintained expensive hunting lodges at government expense, while the people went short of meat and fruit.
The Ceaucescu regime fell when the Rumanian army turned against the government, and refused to shoot protestors in the streets. Had the Rumanians been well-armed, the population might not have had to endure 45 years of brutal dictatorship, waiting until the regime alienated even the Communist army officers.
In the days following the revolution, Ceaucescu's secret police, the Securitate, waged a vicious counter-revolutionary campaign against the population, much like the one carried out by Manuel Noriega's "Dignity" battalions after the American invasion.
In December 1989, both Panamanian and Rumanian citizens took up arms to defend themselves after theirs dictatorships were toppled. A fair number of Panamanian citizens already owned guns, and were able to speedily form Vigilance Committees to protect their neighborhoods.
Most Rumanians, though, had never touched a gun until they picked up a Kalashnikov assault rifle from the dead hands of a Securitate soldier. One can only speculate about how many Rumanian citizens were mowed down by Securitate because the citizens lacked the first idea about how to fire an automatic effectively, how to clear a firing chamber jam, or how to use a rifle sight.
The final story of Eastern Europe is yet to be written. What we do know so far is that the flames of revolution, which now threaten to engulf the Soviet Union itself, were first kindled in the Soviet empire by the brave people of Afghanistan, who took up arms and laid down their lives so that their nation would not perish from the earth.