Iraq and the NRA: Reader Response

Why you can buy guns in Saddam’s police state.

Three weeks ago, Chatterbox wondered aloud how Iraq could be a police state given that, according to Neil MacFarquhar of the New York Times, “Most Iraqi households own at least one gun.” Chatterbox had been given to understand, by the National Rifle Association, that widespread gun ownership was a Jeffersonian bulwark against unfree government. Why did it fail in Iraq? Chatterbox invited readers to explain. Here are the answers he got:

No ammo. Several readers, including Michael Dolan, author of The American Porch, noticed that Chatterbox didn’t specifically mention that ammunition was also widely available. He should have. It is (see MacFarquhar has it wrong, below).

Lack of will. That’s the conclusion of William Lolli, contributing editor to, whose Web posting inspired many gun advocates to write in with theories of their own. “A gun in your hand does not make you free,” writes Lolli. “The hand must have the will and the desire to be free.” Lolli argues that “thirty years of secret police midnight raids, torture chambers, rape, public beheadings and all manner of systematic terror” have sapped the will of Iraqis. Lolli’s response is one of many “necessary but not sufficient” arguments Chatterbox has received. This one begs the question, which is not how a demoralized armed populace could fail to overthrow a brutal regime, but rather, how a non-demoralized armed populace could have allowed that brutal regime to emerge in the first place.

They’ve got guns, but the Iraqi regime has better guns. One unidentified reader notes that he saw only shotguns in the photograph illustrating MacFarquhar’s article. The Washington Post’s Anthony Shadid has explained why, notes reader Jared Pitts: “Gun stores can sell only hunting rifles and pistols. But AK-47s, the weapon of choice, are provided to millions of members of the ruling Baath Party and allied militias such as the one known as Saddam’s Fedayeen.”

A case can certainly be made that freedom-loving Iraqis should have the same access to AK-47s as the Fedayeen. But you can only take this argument so far. If every Iraqi citizen were free to own a weapons cache that matched that of Saddam Hussein, every Iraqi citizen could own chemical and biological weapons. Even Charlton Heston can’t want that.

Iraqis are very poor shots. This is the funniest explanation Chatterbox received. Reader David Pinkerd says he’s convinced that “the main reason they are always firing guns into the air is that [it] is the only thing they are assured of hitting.”

MacFarquhar has it wrong. “Did the Times reporter do a national survey of Iraq?” inquired reader Dave Pinsen. Surely not. And it’s true that Chatterbox has chided MacFarquhar before for making fanciful seat-of-the-pants estimates. But MacFarquhar’s piece provided testimony from gun shop owners that ammunition sales had risen as much as 50 percent in the runup to the war. He also provided eyewitness evidence (at Baghdad’s Target Gun Shop and Trigger Gun Shop) that guns and ammunition are still sold freely and openly in Iraq. Even if he didn’t demonstrate that most families have guns, MacFarquhar did demonstrate that most families have easy access to guns if they want them. Which is practically the same thing.

In Red Dawn, the soldiers were Russians and Cubans, not Russians and Nicaraguans. This has no bearing on the question at hand, but in his earlier item Chatterbox did summarize the plot of Red Dawn and apparently flubbed an important detail. Chatterbox thanks reader Jeffrey Labrado for setting him straight.

The Iraqis lack freedom of assembly. Another “necessary but not sufficient” argument. Reader William Myers: “It is still considered treason for armed Iraq citizens to assemble and discuss antigovernment issues. If this were possible, the condition of Iraq’s citizens [might] be different.” But if it were possible for Iraqis to discuss publicly what’s wrong with their government, Iraq would be a free enough society that reformers would have better alternatives to taking up arms against the government.

The NRA’s basic premise is false. Chatterbox resisted this logic as long as he could. But reader Richard Antill notes that the United Kingdom, Germany, France, and many other western democracies (most, in fact) regulate guns much more heavily than the U.S., yet manage not to turn into police states. Maybe he’s onto something.