As the Euromaidan protests enter their fourth month, Ukraine’s embattled President Yanukovych is turning to one resource where there is no question of his government’s supremacy: firearms. Horrific images and video showing men who appear to be members of the Ukrainian security force firing on protestors with sniper rifles and AK-47s have appeared online, the latest escalation in a series of violent engagements that have left close to 100 dead on the streets of Kiev over the past week.
For American gun lobbyists who have cited easy access to firearms as an insurance policy against government oppression, the turmoil in Kiev is a perfect talking point. A nation with restrictive laws governing private gun ownership, Ukraine’s government is in possession of more than seven million guns, a larger stockpile than every other post-Soviet state combined. The cache, largely USSR-era small arms and ammunition, is large enough to fuel conflicts (PDF) as far away as Libya, Chad, and Azerbaijan.
Compared to the three million weapons, both legal and illicit, in private Ukrainian hands, the gulf in firepower is staggering. By comparison, in the United States, there are up to 310 million guns in private hands, and 3.85 million possessed by the military and police forces. Private possession of handguns in Ukraine is permitted only with a license, approval of which requires an applicant prove a genuine reason to possess a firearm, a list unlikely to include “armed revolution.”
As ill-protected Ukrainian protestors face off against a military counterinsurgency armed with the world’s sixth-largest inventory of small arms, rank-and-file supporters of the right to bear arms are decrying restrictive gun laws both in Ukraine and the U.S.:
The uprising in Ukraine has also prompted gun-rights advocates to think about taking Second Amendment protections on the road. Gun Owners of America, a gun-rights organization with more than 300,000 members with a history of criticizing the NRA for compromising on firearm legislation, has a history of working with foreign politicians seeking to increase availability of firearms in Central America.
“We’ve been watching the situation,” said Erich Pratt, the group’s director of communications. “There’s obviously a lot of uncertainty, and we don’t support arming people to carry out their complaints, but we’re seeing more and more nations, like North Korea, annihilating gun rights as a way of furthering their tyranny.”
When GOA and other gun rights groups see empty-handed protestors confronting well-trained riot police and well-armed security forces, they see the logical end of gun control’s slippery slope. “Human nature being what it is, it’s always a risk when people’s gun rights are obliterated. Now, it doesn’t happen overnight, but it does happen,” says Pratt. Citing mass killings of unarmed civilians by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia and the Kim regime in North Korea, Pratt points to Ukraine’s strict gun registration laws as the first step toward firearm confiscation. “It turns a god-given right into a government-given privilege.”
And that “god-given” right applies to everyone, Pratt says. “We view that right as universal. We’re fortunate to have it protected in this country by the Second Amendment, but the thing about rights is, they can’t be given or taken away.” As the world witnesses human rights abuses in North Korea, Pratt continues, it should be remindedthat no unarmed citizen revolutionary can stand for long against a nation’s military forces.
Would more relaxed gun laws in Ukraine have helped protestors? “We certainly think it would have a chilling effect on the government,” said Pratt. “The beauty of firearms is that they’re the last resort against government oppression. Still, tyrants don’t like people being able to point guns back at them.”
The GOA shouldn’t have to wait long to test this thesis: On February 19, protestors seized more than 1,500 firearms and 100,000 rounds of ammunition from government storage.