Debating Assault Rifles—in Libya

As the US debates the wisdom of various types of gun sales control and bans on assault rifles or high capacity magazines, it’s worth thinking about the impact of assault rifles on a very different society—Libya’s.

“How are they going to get all these weapons off the street?” was the first political comment that I heard from the first Libyan I ever met, Mohamed Hilal El Senussi, on our first day in Benghazi, April 8, 2011. We’d agreed that he would take me into eastern Libya with him and I would write about our trip and his reactions; El Senussi is a great-nephew of Libya’s deposed King Idris, and until 2011 he hadn’t been in Libya since his family were overthrown in the late 1960s. While he was an unequivocal supporter of the revolution, he was also deeply troubled by the omnipresent assault rifles.

Mohamed proved to be right. To this day, the number one problem in Libya is the uncontrollable, heavily armed militias that have failed to cohere into a national army or police force.

Yet I also heard a very different take on the weapons issue a year later in Zwara, where a nasty “small war” had broken out between the Berber capital and its Arab neighbors. Fifteen men were killed in three days out of a population of 40,000, and probably more among the Arab towns. Zwara was shelled from the towns Rig Dalin and Ajjalit and responded with fire using its five tanks (that’s not a typo). Both sides had truck-mounted “Shelkas,” 23.5-mm Russian machine guns. And of course every fighting man had an assault rifle left over from the revolution.

After a few days, the central government sent its own militia to separate the two sides and restore the uneasy peace that has prevailed since. There was talk of Zwara being disarmed. When I asked Zwara men their thoughts, they were divided. Some, particularly older men, thought that only the police and army ought to have weapons. They were worried about the fact that even in April, nearly six months after Zwara had its first local elections, the police and justice system were still not working. But some of the younger men strongly favored private weapon ownership. They gave as an example the US, where, they said, the right to bear arms was one of the reasons that a dictator like Qaddafi had never been able to take power. And by arms, they didn’t mean hunting rifles—they meant the assault rifles that they’d carried in the revolution, weapons to keep a tyrant at bay. Or their neighbors.

I was moved by this argument, but felt compelled to explain that we had the rule of law in the US well under way before we had assault weapons. Indeed, the framers of the Bill of Rights were heirs to hundreds of years of English common law that had gradually solidified individual rights and eroded the power of the monarchy. I pointed out that gun ownership had its dark side; mass murder by deranged gunmen was an omnipresent feature of American life, as well as political assassinations, gang warfare, and ferocious street crime in poor neighborhoods.

Now, nine months later, a lot of water has gone under the bridge here and there. Libyan militiamen murdered our ambassador, Christopher Stevens, and the security situation in Benghazi is probably worse than it was then. The unraveling of Mali is being blamed in many press accounts on the availability of heavy weapons from Libya and from fighters returned from there. In the US, we’ve had the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, that tipped the balance of public opinion.

Is there a lesson to be drawn here? The question, really, is whether weapons cause violence or anarchy, or whether they prevent tyranny, and the answer may be: both and neither. I’d argue that in both Libya and the US, assault rifles just exacerbate fault lines that are already there. They don’t fundamentally change the nature of the society.

The right to bear arms won’t by itself bring human rights and freedom from tyranny to Libya. Despite the huge numbers of assault rifles in Libya, there are far more infringements of human rights occurring there than in, say, the European countries that ban assault rifle ownership absolutely. The Libyan state under Qaddafi was a weak and eroded state and even had he fallen in a bloodless revolution, the country would have been left with few stable institutions. Assault rifles have given confidence to the militias and intimidated the forces of order, but even without them, I’d argue, the results would have been similar. As for Mali, while early, sloppy reporting portrayed the toppling of its government as a triumph of the forces of evil, later accounts have pointed out that Mali’s elected president, Amadou Toumani Touré (aka “ATT”), was very corrupt and tolerated the gradual encroachment of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in his country. Perhaps Touré fell not because of an influx of weapons, but because his government neither governed justly nor controlled its territory.

In the US we need to separate out the Aurora and Newtown incidents from basic trends.

While some estimate that there are 88 weapons for every 100 Americans, and we are generally agreed to have the most personal firearms per capita of any country, murder rates in the US are less than half of their peak:

The irony is, the US has experienced a dramatic and long-term decline in murder since 1980, even as mass shootings seem to have increased. Social scientists aren’t entirely sure why. The number of murders per 100,000 people has shrunk from a peak of 10.2 in 1980 to 4.7 in 2011.

Our epidemic of horrific mass shootings tells us something important and sobering about our culture and we need to figure out what it is. But it seems to be something different from what crime statistics tell us. Assault rifles, by the way, are used in a relatively small number of murders—323 out of 12,664, as logged by the FBI in 2011. I am not an advocate for assault rifles and support the proposed ban on large magazines. But removing assault rifles from American life would probably not stop the Auroras and Newtowns.


Photo Credit: Al Jazeera English 

OG Image: