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Taking Away the Guns: Forcible Disarmament and Rebellion

Yuri Zhukov

Working Paper from Harvard University OpenScholar

Abstract: If a government is facing an armed uprising, why doesn?t it confiscate all privately-owned weapons? When and where is forcible disarmament most likely to occur? Can forcible disarmament reduce rebel activity? To establish a monopoly on the use of force, a government must either convince its citizens not to rebel, or remove their capacity to do so. Existing literature has left this choice ? between punishment and disarmament ? virtually unexplained. Most existing research focuses on disarmament in the context of post-conflict stabilization, rather than forcible disarmament during war. I introduce a mathematical model of irregular warfare, in which government and rebel forces seek a monopoly on violence. The model shows that disarmament occurs mainly in `hard cases,? where otherwise strong governments are unable to punish opponents or reward supporters. I test these claims with declassified archival data on counterinsurgency in the Soviet North Caucasus. The data confirm that disarmament was most likely where the government?s coercive leverage was limited ? due to poor intelligence and potential backlash from collateral damage. In these otherwise challenging circumstances, disarmament significantly reduced rebel violence ? short-term and long-term, locally and region-wide. By limiting the potential coercive resources under the opposition?s control, disarmament can render rebels unable to sustain a campaign of violence against the state.

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