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Chile’s Gun-Control Lesson for Americans

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One of the popular arguments for gun control is that people don’t need assault rifles, high-capacity magazines, and certain types of high-powered pistols to shoot deer. That argument, however, ignores the primary rationale for the Second Amendment, which was to ensure that people retained the means to resist tyranny at the hands of the federal government.

Statists give short shrift to that rationale. Tyranny is something that befalls people of other nations. In the statist mind, tyranny is a nonexistent possibility here in the United States. After all, the statist reasons, America is a long-established democracy with a deep regard for freedom, a nation that in fact has made enormous sacrifices to oppose tyranny all over the world. It’s just inconceivable, they argue, that tyranny could ever befall the United States.

Although the nation of Chile lies some 5,000 miles away from the United States, its history holds a valuable lesson for the American people in gun control. Before Americans permit their government officials to take their so-called military-style guns away from them, they would be wise to reflect on what happened in Chile more than 40 years ago.

In 1970 Chile elected Salvador Allende to the presidency. It had been an extremely tight three-man race, with Allende securing 36.63 percent of the vote against the second-place candidate, Jorge Alessandri, who garnered 35.29 percent. Since none of the candidates had received a majority, under Chile’s electoral rules the Congress would decide who would be president. Under a long-established tradition of electing the person with the most votes, Congress chose Allende to be president of Chile.

Allende’s election marked the culmination of a remarkable political journey. A physician, he had been involved in politics for nearly 40 years, holding the positions of senator, deputy, and cabinet minister. He had also run unsuccessfully for the presidency in the 1952, 1958, and 1964 elections.

Most notably, Allende was a Marxist, a man who firmly believed in socialism and communism. As such, on his election in 1970 his administration began implementing or expanding socialist economic programs and policies, including a taxed-financed retirement program, government-provided health care, welfare for the poor, public housing, nationalization of businesses and industries, equalization of wealth, inflation, public schooling, minimum-wage increases, and price controls.

Three years into Allende’s presidency, Chile’s economy was in a deep tailspin, sending the nation into a crisis. Aggravating the situation were labor strikes, most notably a nationwide truckers’ strike that paralyzed the delivery of food and other essential items across the country.

In June 1973 a small contingent of Chile’s standing army attempted a coup that was quickly aborted. Nonetheless, from that point on there was increasing concern of a more widespread military coup, an act that would destroy Chile’s decades-long experiment with democracy, one of the longest in South America.

A screeching halt … and after

 

I recently watched an award-winning documentary that I highly recommend: The Battle of Chile, Part 2: The Coup d’État, directed by Patricio Guzman. It provides a fascinating account of the democratic processes in Chile in the summer of 1973. What struck me most about the film was the vibrancy of debates, arguments, speeches, meetings, and demonstrations that were taking place.

Most of the film, naturally, focuses on the activities of Allende’s supporters, i.e., Marxists, communists, liberals, and progressives. But as I was watching those people passionately deliver their arguments, make their speeches, argue their positions, and debate their proposals, all I could think about was that that is what democracy is all about — about the right of people to freely engage peacefully in political activity, even when their ideas and philosophy are disfavored by others.

As a libertarian I had no sympathy with their substantive economic views, but that’s not what I focused on when watching the film. I focused on the vibrant democratic political process in which people from all walks of life, especially the poor, were promoting their ideas and their philosophies in a peaceful, eloquent, and passionate manner in the marketplace of ideas.

 

Given the increasing concern over the possibility of a military coup, Allende’s supporters began asking for guns. As I watched the film, there were two things that fascinated me about that request. One, the Chilean people, like so many others around the world, were obviously prohibited from owning guns. Two, they wanted guns to protect the government, specifically the Allende administration, from the threat of a takeover by Chile’s military.

No doubt owing to his deeply seated statist tendencies, however, Allende did not abandon Chile’s system of gun control. The only people who would be permitted to continue owning and possessing guns were the military and the police.

On September 11, 1973, a military junta led by Gen. Augusto Pinochet announced that the military was taking power in Chile. It demanded Allende’s resignation and offered him exile from the country. Allende refused, and the junta ordered the air force to bomb the national palace, where Allende was situated. Allende’s small force of armed guards was easily overwhelmed by Chile’s military forces. Before he could be taken prisoner, Allende made a farewell speech to the Chilean people and committed suicide by shooting himself in the head.

 

The aftermath of the coup was one of the most horrific stories in history. Pinochet immediately shut down all political activity. His military and police forces swept across the land and began a massive roundup of people suspected of being communists or terrorists. There were pockets of resistance but they were quickly smashed by Pinochet’s well-armed professional military forces.

There was nothing that the Chilean people, especially Allende’s supporters, could do. How could they resist Chile’s well-armed, professional military without weapons? In fact, in the summer before the coup, the military clearly understood how important it was to keep the citizenry disarmed. Military units were periodically raiding private establishments to conduct warrantless searches for guns. The military clearly understood that a disarmed citizenry is an obedient, meek, and cooperative citizenry under military rule.

And so it was in Chile. All the vibrant democratic activity that one sees in The Battle of Chile, Part 2 came to a screeching halt. In fact, as I was watching people discussing and debating Marxism, socialism, and communism in the months preceding the coup, I couldn’t help but wonder how many of them were alive five years later.

Chile’s military took into custody some 40,000 people, many of whom were herded into the national stadium, where they were incarcerated indefinitely and harshly interrogated. The official reports say that approximately 3,000 people were killed or “disappeared,” but unofficial estimates put the number much higher.

Most notably, the Chilean army established a system of harsh interrogation techniques, which consisted of torture, rape, and other horrific, unimaginable methods of abuse. The military’s objective was to establish “order and stability” within the nation, which necessarily entailed bringing an end to the political “chaos” that democracy had brought the nation. Achieving that goal required an extermination of the Marxist communist ideology that had afflicted the nation, an ideology that had, the generals believed, plunged the nation into such a deep economic crisis that “national security” and even the survival of the nation were threatened.

People were rounded up and tortured to secure vital information from them, specifically the names and addresses of their friends and associates. As people gave up the information, security forces would go out and round up the people whose names had been disclosed, and then they would be tortured to provide the names and addresses of their friends and associates.

When a person was brought into one of the secret torture chambers located in various parts of Santiago, he was told that for all practical purposes he no longer existed, that he was now a number, not a name, that people in the outside world would never know what became of him. He was advised that while he might be permitted to live for a time, he should give up all hope on ever becoming part of society again. The rest of his life, he was informed, would be spent being tortured. Once the torturers were convinced that people had given up all the essential information, some of them would then be executed or they “disappeared,” sometimes with a bullet and sometimes by being drugged and dropped alive from a helicopter or plane into the ocean.

Among the methods of harsh interrogation used was “the grill,” in which a victim was strapped down and given severe electric shocks to some of the more sensitive parts of his body. People were also subjected to “the submarine,” which involved holding the person’s head under water.

These harsh interrogation methods, of course, were not limited to men. They were applied to women as well, given that women too were Marxists, socialists, and communists, and had played an important role in Allende’s election. To encourage them to talk, women were kept naked and systematically raped. To ensure necessary cooperation, family members, including young children, were also threatened with rape.

 

It is not surprising that there were instances of suicides, which of course cheated the military out of further interrogation and subsequent execution.

A disarmed people cowed

 

There was nothing the Chilean people could do to resist this. How does one resist a well-armed professional military force when one has no guns? Throw rocks?

The Battle of Chile, Part 2 shows a massive pro-Allende demonstration and parade in the middle of Santiago before the coup. My recollection is that 800,000 people participated, with banners, signs, and songs telling Allende that they were ready to defend him and his administration. But as all of them would soon learn, such promises turned out to be hollow, for the military and police had a legal monopoly over the ownership and possession of guns.

I don’t know what the size of Chile’s military was at that time. Today, it’s about 40,000 troops. Could 800,000 well-armed citizens take on 40,000 professional troops? I say yes. But at the very least, they would have an alternative to obediently and submissively being taken to torture, rape, and extermination centers or meekly watching as their wives and daughters were being taken away.

Sometimes a person would simply be walking down the street when a car of armed gendarmes would pull up alongside, kidnap him, and cart him away, and he would never be seen or heard from again. Even though there would be people nearby, everyone would simply act as though nothing was happening, keep his head bowed, and keep on walking. Others would not dare to come to the defense of the kidnap victim, since the same fate would obviously befall them. Imagine how different things might have been if the citizenry had been armed. A car full of armed military or intelligence gendarmes might have a much more difficult time facing dozens of armed citizens determined to prevent a kidnapping.

It’s not easy to define what exactly a tyrannical regime is. But by all measures, the Pinochet regime certainly has to fall within the definition. It was a brutal military regime that ousted a democratically elected president and that made democratic activity illegal. The head of this military regime, Pinochet, refused to stand for election. In fact, he remained in power for 17 years. During that entire time his military dictatorship smashed out of existence Chile’s long democratic tradition.

 

Worst of all, people were subjected to some of the worst horrors that could ever be imagined, owing to nothing more than their ideological beliefs. There were no judicial trials to ascertain whether they had committed criminal offenses. In fact, the courts rolled over and went along with the military takeover and with what the military was doing to the citizenry. The military regime wielded and exercised the omnipotent power to rid the nation of communism and terrorism, which necessarily entailed ridding the nation of communists and terrorists. People were incarcerated, tortured, raped, executed, and “disappeared” for what they believed in — Marxism, communism, and socialism — and for having promoted their beliefs in the political process.

If that’s not tyranny, what is?

In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson points out that whenever any government becomes destructive of the fundamental, God-given rights of the people, it is the right of the people to abolish it and to “institute new Government.”

Nice words, but as the Chilean people learned the hard way, they mean nothing in the absence of the ability of people to use force against the government officials who are imposing tyranny on them. Given that the Chilean people lacked the guns that could have been used to defend themselves (and the Allende administration) from the Chilean military, they were left with nothing but silence, fear, obedience, deference, and submissiveness to their military rulers.

Would the U.S. military and CIA ever do to Americans what the Chilean military dictatorship did to people in Chile? The answer turns on the nature of the particular “crisis” and whether “national security” requires it, for there is nothing more important to national-security state officials than the protection of “national security.”

After all, let’s not forget that the CIA helped extinguish Chile’s long democratic tradition by helping to foment the Pinochet coup and then by supporting, defending, and working closely with the Pinochet’s brutal military dictatorship. Their justification? “National security,” the same justification, in fact, that has been used to install, partner with, or support other dictatorships around the world, including Iran, Guatemala, El Salvador, Argentina, Egypt, Pakistan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and others.

But if such a horror were ever to befall the United States, the American people, owing to their long heritage of gun ownership, would have an option that the Chilean people didn’t have — the option to resist tyranny with force, an option which, as the Chilean people will attest, would disappear if Americans were ever denied the right to keep and bear arms.

This article originally appeared in the April 2013 edition of Future of Freedom.

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    Jacob G. Hornberger is founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation. He was born and raised in Laredo, Texas, and received his B.A. in economics from Virginia Military Institute and his law degree from the University of Texas. He was a trial attorney for twelve years in Texas. He also was an adjunct professor at the University of Dallas, where he taught law and economics. In 1987, Mr. Hornberger left the practice of law to become director of programs at the Foundation for Economic Education. He has advanced freedom and free markets on talk-radio stations all across the country as well as on Fox News’ Neil Cavuto and Greta van Susteren shows and he appeared as a regular commentator on Judge Andrew Napolitano’s show Freedom Watch. View these interviews at LewRockwell.com and from Full Context. Send him email.