I've been seeing a meme to the effect, "If the Jews had guns they wouldn't have all gone to the death camps" This has usually been cited by a 2nd amendment advocate

One of the answers has a line, "...idea of firearm ownership as a moral instrument of maintaining republican virtue and ensuring that the government fears the people and thus never dares to be repressive."

This comes closer to capturing my original notion. So perhaps my question should be rephrased,

"To what extent has a well armed populace prevented government repression"

Now there are reasons why this isn't so. Much of the Final Solution was done quietly enough that most people were barely aware of their neighbours vanishing. There was a strong dis-information program of letter from the putative work camps.

When the Warsaw ghetto Jews understood what the trip to Treblinka meant they revolted, and with the relatively small number of weapons they had, they took an honour guard with them. (Somewhere around 300 German deaths. A few hundred pistols, under a hundred rifles, some grenades and the ubiquitous molotov cocktails.)

So I'm looking for examples of:

An identifiable minority under a repressive government that maintained at least respect through force of arms.

Sort of examples:

  • The Khmer Rouge in effect destroyed the upper class of Cambodia. Could this have been different if there were signifcant arms amoung the upper class?

  • England during the century leading up to Agincourt and Crecy with commoners having long bows.

  • Would Rwanda have been more or less bloody with firearms?

In nations with civil unrest are there greater or fewer violent deaths when both sides are armed.

What role does a generally armed populace have on resisting oppression?

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    That Nazi gun theory is of course total rubbish - the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was crushed, and the 300 figure you cited is a heavily exaggerated guess (the only confirmed record is 17 killed). The success of resistance depends rather more on the ruthlessness of the oppressor, their military prowess, and the size of the "minority", than it does on how armed the oppressed are. The First Emperor of China had all the weapons he could find confiscated and melted down; the rebels still destroyed his empire in just two years.
    – Semaphore
    Mar 7, 2018 at 23:40
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    The Nazis, once in power, gradually loosened gun laws in Germany. One root of the Nazis movmenent was the Freikorps and Schwarze Reichswehr, meaning they where themselves well armed throughout the 20ties.
    – mart
    Mar 8, 2018 at 7:32
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    It boils down to, "can a group of people win a civil war against the government, its police, and its military". It's certainly not impossible, but it's a very messy affair and can well cost more lives than the oppressive rule you are revolting against would have.
    – DevSolar
    Mar 8, 2018 at 8:50
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    Yep, the US south (almost) resisted the evil and oppressive abolition of slavery through arms. Through same, it has resisted wicked attempts to establish full racial equality to this day. Note: this, and not the War of Independence nor anything else, was the origin of gun culture.
    – Ne Mo
    Mar 8, 2018 at 9:00
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    @Ne Mo The NRA was founded by former Union soldiers who recognized the glaring lack of marksmanship skills among some Union soldiers and sought to remedy it. Several of the major founding fathers were avid hunters and sportsman, and Thomas Jefferson had much positive things to say about gun ownership, as did many other founders. Indeed, TJ attributed US victory at Lexington and Concord to the fact that american militiamen were familiar with fire arms from birth. With respect, you are completely biased and utterly wrong about "gun cultures" relationship to the Civil and Revolutionary Wars. Mar 8, 2018 at 23:15

6 Answers 6


Solzhenitsyn has an argument, not about when the people has the resist a government in war or as a guerrilla, and not about winning. It is about not allowing the meat grinding machine to work as easy as it could.

It is about making any general persecution, massive arbitrary prisons or oppression, costly and dangerous for the government minions, and more difficult to hide from public opinion

It is about not being just a flock of sheep in deep sleep, waiting for the wolves to strike at their leisure, with no worry at all, not even for the smallest wolf.

It is about to make the government know that they may rule the country, but they can not do anything they want to whole classes of targets, quickly, quietly, and at no cost for themselves.

With so many surveillance and big data about our lives, this is becoming more and more relevant every day. How easy would be for Stalin to find the addresses of all kulaks today? Or to find proofs of their counter-revolutionary thoughts in the internet?

Quote from The GULAG Archipelago

And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family?

Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand?

After all, you knew ahead of time that those bluecaps were out at night for no good purpose. And you could be sure ahead of time that you’d be cracking the skull of a cutthroat. Or what about the Black Maria [Government limo] sitting out there on the street with one lonely chauffeur — what if it had been driven off or its tires spiked.

The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin’s thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt!

–Alexander Solzhenitsyn, The GULAG Archipelago

  • After all, your status in Hell is determined by how big an honour guard you bring with you. Thanks for a nice answer. Mar 11, 2018 at 19:06

Your questions seems to be based on a logical fallacy: An identifiable minority under a repressive government that maintained at least respect through force of arms.

A repressive government, by definition, will not tolerate an armed, dis-loyal or even hostile minority. The only real world example that comes to mind would be the failed state scenario:

Clan X is armed and hostile to the central government, so there the government's power does not reach into clan X's territory.

For functioning states, no such scenario comes to mind, or would even be plausible. Which regime, under the assumption that there is no rebellion or civil war, would put up with such a situation? Even democratic, non-repressive, governments have a strong interest to maintain the rule-of-law. Minorities, with political views differing from the government's view, may be tolerated. However, as soon as the rule-of-law is questioned, there will be trouble.

Medieval England, which was among the examples, had arms available to the broad population; however, in absence of rebellion, the Kings ruled the land.

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    A very good example of this would perhaps be what happened in Tulsa in 1921 when an oppressed minority decided it would be a good idea to resist a lynch mob against one of their men by arming themselves. Their entire neighborhood was smoldering ash by the next morning, and every resident had either been killed, fled or was interned. (To be fair, the distraction did serve to save the one would-be lynchee though)
    – T.E.D.
    Mar 8, 2018 at 22:43
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    The monopoly of violence is one of the defining features of a working government. One this is gone, the government has more or less failed. So, any sensible government would very much oppose any armed group which threatens the government's monopoly of violence.
    – Dohn Joe
    Mar 9, 2018 at 5:04
  • @DohnJoe - Good answer, this answer is colloquially known as monopoly on violence. But I wonder if you've just paraphrased Max Weber (Politics as a Vocation, 1919) without attribution? If you haven't read this and came up with this on your own, you are doing excellent analysis.
    – J Asia
    Mar 9, 2018 at 7:54
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    I haven't read Max Weber, but probably his ideas have spread into general knowledge, at least when it's about politcs. Monopoly of violence often comes up with respect to failed states. Right now I read "Why Nations Fails", that is a very interesting read. However, good that you cited Max Weber as the source for the Monopoly of Violence, it is always good to learn where ideas originated.
    – Dohn Joe
    Mar 9, 2018 at 8:01
  • That explains it. Acemoglu and Robinson has their reference to Weber in ch 3 of Why Nations Fail. I would also add, from a historical perspective, the concept of monopoly on violence in the context of this question (i.e. the role of armed populace) is, and it did happen during Weber's time, a violent uprising - Spartacist uprising.
    – J Asia
    Mar 9, 2018 at 15:01

Right now?

little. The current opressive power of nations as per 2018, even the smallest one, is times bigger than any other nation in the past, for the simple reason that weapons, armament, and technology is what wins wars today.

The biggest civilian armed resistance moment we're seeing in our times are both the Syrian opposition coalition, and the Kurdish freedom forces.

The syrian opposition coalition survived as long as material resources and diplomatical restraint from the Assad goverment forced the combat operations to be developed in 20th century fashion, columns of dozens of vehicles approach site X; a small artillery attack with light/medium equipment barriages the military hotspots, and infantry clears the streets. This is the only case where a civilian armed force could win, guerrilla urban warfare.

What we're seeing now since Russia, Usa and Turkey's intervention these last years due to Daesh and economical interests are grand strategy battle plans, with multiple bombardments, strategical attacks, use of non-regulated (chemical, etc) weapons, and mass artillery that drive the infantry attacks unnecessary and the rebels almost completely defenseless.

When does it work? when facing a similar equipped, armoured and trained force like the Daesh vs Kurdish forces conflict, where the kurdish resiliance turned the tables even when being attack by both sides of the conflict, or the "civil war" going on in Ukraine, where the "rebels" have access to similar military equipment.

In the near past?

We have dozens of examples of 20th century conflicts where a civilian armed force ( depending on the side of the media, "terrorists/rebels" or "freedom fighters/patriots") have managed to drive back the push of a much stronger military force, for a short time.

In the end, a stronger military force will always succeed, unless the political leadership behind it starts to weaken. The Irish revolts, Vietnam (and the previous forgotten chapter of the French indochina war), the Soviet–Afghan War are examples of wars where it just wasn't worth it for some very big players to keep up the fight.

in the far past?

The greatest examples come from the early 19th and 18th century, the Peninsular War in Spain (1808-1812) started with the conservative and anti-french religious figures ( mostly church lawyers and priests ) stepping up and arming with their money and assets ( and brittish and portuguese help) the civilians,some episodes of the french revolution ( althought most of it was urban-ish), the American revolutionary war, and the always forgotten tragic ending of the Spanish Succession War, where 10000 militiamen and ex austrian-aligned military members (about 50% of each) stayed under siege for 380 days in barcelona defending against a force of 32-50.000 men ( depending on the stage), plus a full fleet port blockade, and them( defenders) winning every assault intent during the siege except the last ( where only 4000 defenders were left).

In the very, very far past?

During the renaissance and the medieval ages, armed civilians ( and specifically, those veterans in conflicts) were a constant headache to feudal nobles, causing commoner wars, rebellions, religious insurgences... due to them being the core of an almost pure "on-demand" recruitment system with no standing armies.


A ruthless, not politically restrained, well trained and equipped modern ( 2018) standing army ( and navy + air force) will always win an armed conflict against civilians.

Change any of the parameters and the odds will turn into the civilian's favour a little bit.

  • "not politically restrained" is an assumption. Mar 9, 2018 at 23:20
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    Yes. Political restraint. Picture Ghandi vs Nazi war machine. "Shoot him. Next case?" Would present day U.S. soldiers attack U.S. civilian targets? Seems to me that a would-be repressive govt would need a different troop selection/training process to enable their use on internal targets. Mar 11, 2018 at 19:04
  • @SherwoodBotsford it has been proven that the modern chain of command dissolves responsibilities so much that only a long time after obeying orders soldiers/policemen do feel remorse ( if appliable on the situation) for their actions. Police is all across western world ordered to charge on elder people, teenagers, uni students, women... there's been deaths on those charges. why wouldn't they shoot back if ordered, when under fire? you just gotta take a small look at the irish troubles in the 70's & bloody sunday.
    – CptEric
    Mar 12, 2018 at 7:10

First, there are numerous examples of armed populaces resisting foreign occupation successfully, so I will address those and leave aside the question of what you are counting as repression.

The American experience in Vietnam and the Soviet experience in Afghanistan provide at least partially successful examples of resisting occupation/incursions by a hostile government. That there are a huge number of other factors and forces involved in the "defeat" of the occupying countries does not change the fact that massively advanced modern armies were stymied in part by populaces armed generally with comparatively primitive weapons.

The defeat was not due purely to those primitively armed populaces; the Viet Cong were fighting along with the NVA in the North for example, which itself had intermittent Soviet and Chinese support, and to be sure, if the foreign forces being resisted had been willing to spend endless resources and absorb endless casualties, they might well have won, but it is still a fact that armed insurgencies helped significantly in defeating the preeminent superpowers on earth in critical wars in the 20th century (helped along by the other superpower of course ;) It is far more complicated than simply "An armed populace triumphed!" but it is still true to say they contributed significantly.

The 2nd amendment itself was envisioned in a post revolutionary war context, the revolutionary war being an example par excellence of an armed populace resisting what it viewed as repression. And Thomas Jefferson attributed the quality of the militiamen who fought the critical opening phases of the war to the fact that they were intimate with firearms from a young age..

The idea that if the Jews had been armed they could have resisted the Nazis sounds fairly absurd, and I think it is. Armed resistance on their part would have only fed into Nazi propaganda and hastened their extermination. That said, its also fairly absurd, in light of the insurgencies of the previous half century, to argue that an armed populace cannot oppose a modern, technologically advanced military. In concert with other factors and forces, such as the NVA in North Vietnam, such a populace can wreck absolute havoc and achieve quite allot.

Second, perhaps equally important if not more so, many of the founders who enacted the 2nd amendment would have argued that the role of an armed populace in resisting oppression is in preventing repression so you never have to be repressed at all. The men who enacted the 2nd amendment believed that an armed populace was essential in maintaining republican virtue. Restated, a population which cannot trust itself to be armed cannot trust itself to maintain republican constitutional government.

2nd amendment "gun nuts" are right in saying that the 2nd amendment was written with resisting domestic as well as foreign tyranny in mind, but they often overemphasize the flashy idea of armed rebellion against the much less flashy but perhaps more important idea of firearm ownership as a moral instrument of maintaining republican virtue and ensuring that the government fears the people and thus never dares to be repressive.

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    The Viet Cong ceased to exist, as a military force in any meaningful sense, after the Tet Offensive. It was the fortitude of the Army of North Vietnam that, by remaining a force in the field despite numerous tactical defeats by U.S. forces, won the Vietnam War for the North. Mar 8, 2018 at 22:04
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    @Pieter Geerkens You are portraying the defeat of the US in Vietnam as being due to one single factor when it was due to many. War's are fought in their summation, and the Viet Cong contributed to the NVAs war effort. I think it's pretty hard to argue that the casualties they inflicted and the time and resources spent to stop them was not instrumental in wearing down the American public's support for the war. Mar 8, 2018 at 22:05
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    @Pieter Geerkens By way of an analogy, would you argue that rural militiamen who had good aim in the initial parts of the Revolutionary War did not contribute to the American victory just because they were in replaced by Continental Regulars by the end of the War? That said I think you are right that I should be more exact with my language, so I have altered my answer slightly to clarify. Mar 8, 2018 at 22:10
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    "idea of firearm ownership as a moral instrument of maintaining republican virtue and ensuring that the government fears the people and thus never dares to be repressive" Nice line. Mar 9, 2018 at 18:11
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    I think this answer misses the spirit of the quesion, as guerilla troops in south vietnahm either used improvised weapons, weapons smuggled in via the Ho Chi Minh path or obtained from their enemies. I'm pretty sure privately owned weapons played a very minor part (though I can't prove that now). To be fair, Indochina had seen decades of war when the US got involved.
    – mart
    Mar 9, 2018 at 21:32

Let's look at some antifascist resistance movements during WWII:

  • The Resistenza in italy was for a large part young men who deserted the italian army in '43 or joined partisans to avoid draft into the pro-fascist army (all this after italies capitulation and Germanies occupation of northern italy). It appears that the initial armament was what deserting soldiers took with them, plus air drops by the allies and captured enemy weapons. Many hotbeds of partisan resistance where rural areas where you'd expect hunting weaponms in some households, these didn'T play a role in any recollections I've heard or read - though former antifascist partisans I heard didn't talk much about weapons but stressed the importance of organization, trust and logistic support for those in the mountains. The partisans where mostly organized along political lines, many communist. This sugests to me that having a (clandestine) organization in place before the occupation certainly helped.

  • Yugoslav Partisans - German wikipedia claims that initially, civilian hunting guns where used, but quickly supplanted with captured enemy weapons. The biggest groupt within this movement where the communists under Tito, who had Cadres with experience from the spanish civil war. Also the communist party had the experience of a badly failed coup attempt from '29 - Again, some organization was im place.

  • Karynthian Partisans - Karynthia, southeastern corner of Austria, saw the only sustained partisan resistance on territory of the Reich: The nazis partially deported 'slovenians' living here as slavs. Others whou would also identify as slovenian, spoke the language or where catholic (Most or all German nationalists here where protestant, Nazi persecution here was partially directed at catholic preachers) received draft orders into the Wehrmacht - and deserted, joined Titos partisans, and returned (Many where not particularyly communist, and occasionally the communist cadres would smuggle catholic preachers into Karynthia so their comrades could hold mass ...). Ingrid Strobl, who wrote extensivly about antifascist partisan women in her book Sag nie du ggehst den letzten Weg, notes that as this was a rural area and the slovenians predominatnly farmers, every household had a gun and everyone would have bsic familiarity. However, I think the fact that roughly half the population of Karynthia potentially faced the prospect of deportation (There was never a clear cut definition of who was slovenian) and that there was a partisan movement on the other side of the mountain where certainly major factors.

  • Jewish partisan groups - In her book mentioned above, Ingrid Strobl focusses on women partisans - At least these seem to all have come from either the Hashomer (Zionist youth organization) or the Bund (militant union). A famous Bundist and resistance fighter is Marek Edelmann, one of the commanders of the Warsaw Gettho uprising. In his recolections of the uprising, he stresses the importanca of weapons supplied by the Armia Kraiova (Communist groups also supplied guns, but had very few).

We could go on with the Armia Kraiova, greek partisans or the resistance (and maybe I'll do that later). For now my comclusion would be that access to guns matters, but not as much as having an organization that can sustain a prolonged struggle. Guns can - at great risk! - be obtained from enemies. In all cases listed above, guns owned prior to the war played a role only in the first phase of the resistance struggle & I can't say how big or small it was.

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    You could add the Suuni Iraqis who resisted the government after Saddam fell. Mar 9, 2018 at 23:21
  • I know one half of a thing about WW2 and so I focussed on that.
    – mart
    Mar 9, 2018 at 23:49
  • So in the case of American 2nd amendment fans, the "well organized militia" is as important as the ability to arm bears. Mar 11, 2018 at 19:13

A couple of recent examples...

The mujahideen in Afghanistan, an armed populace, did quite well against the Soviets.

And the Viet Cong were fairly effective, until the NVA conned them into the Tet offensive, and most of them were killed, thus eliminating N Vietnam's only possible opposition after the southern government fell.

In both cases, the armed populace wore the government's backer down and convinced them to leave, and then knocked off the government.

Also in both cases, private ownership of arms wasn't necessary a right. When the opposition decided to resort to force, they found ways to get weapons.

  • In these cases they were working against an occupying power, not the local government. I am looking for examples where an armed populace prevented the existing government from taking oppressive actions. Once I read a comment that France couldn't tolerate armed yeomanry like England had (men required to practice archery in medieval england) since it would enable the people to take pot shots at the aristocracy. Can't find the reference now. Mar 15, 2018 at 19:11

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