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The debate over gun ownership has dominated the politics of the United States for over 20 years. No Presidential candidate can afford to ignore it. The Media covers it obsessively. After abortion, it provokes more demonstrations than any other issue.

The American Left (and much of the centre) support the Europeanisation of US firearm laws – in other words, the restriction of guns to security and military use. The political Right, with a passion many find confusing, see the right to keep and bear arms as an integral part of American democracy – and the attempt to restrict it as an omen of impending dictatorship.

That last anxiety in particular must be pondered if one wishes to understand the spirit of America. For over 300 years, the Patriotic Right have argued that American democracy is vulnerable to abolition by a tyrannical elite, and that such a regime can only be effectively resisted by an armed population.

As the commentator Glenn Beck put it in his recent book Control: The Truth About Guns – “If we continue to stand up for our rights, none of us alive today will ever have to pick up a weapon against our government. The bad news is that if those rights are watered down or taken away, the risk of tyranny will increase with each passing generation.”

For a long time, like most Europeans, I found this American belief in the importance of firearms absurd. But the more I have reflected upon it, the more suspicious I find the refusal of our own government to bestow the same liberty.

While it’s true that a real totalitarian regime could not be overthrown by civil militias armed with semi-automatic weapons, the general populace, so equipped and working in concert, could surely resist arrest, molestation or abuse by that regime.

When Nazi henchmen jackbooted their way through German suburbs to capture Communists, Jews and democrats, they were cheerful and fearless from the certainty their prey was unarmed. Had the general population been equipped to the extent Americans are today, communities could have disrupted the process to such a degree that state policy may have been altered.

Had SS troops been killed or injured by the dozen as they sought to round up Jewish families, the situation might have arisen in which the groups who wished (anyway) to rebel finally found the occasion to try.

Just like that decisive moment when a schoolyard bully is enfeebled in front of his victim by another (stronger) child, thus leading to the collapse of the bully-victim relationship, in a totalitarian society a moment of state weakness can be fatally provocative. That is why if the North Korean regime (or any other regime like it) ever collapses, it will be the result of the people losing respect for the state, rather than because the state weakens in its systemic design.

You cannot respect a state whose enforcers run from your own bullets, whose bodies line the street having tried to line it with the bodies of your family. Little victories lead naturally onto bigger ones.

So the next time you hear Americans link gun ownership to the maintenance of liberty, try to empathise with them. You may even see your own security in a different, rather more horrifying light.