American Pro-Gun Activists See an Opening as Ukraine Arms its Citizens

One of the first things Ukrainian leaders did to thwart Russian invaders under President Vladimir Putin was arm tens of thousands of its citizens with automatic weapons — better known in the U.S. as machine guns, illegal in the U.S. and far more lethal than the semi-automatic assault rifles that, according to several polls, most Democrats would also like to outlaw.

What do machine guns in the Ukraine have to do with gun-control in America? Plenty, some who are pro-gun are saying.

"You see these women, members of Parliament, sitting there...with Kalashnikovs on their lap. This is a boost to the Second Amendment. This is why people need to have the ability to get arms," former Secretary of Education and drug czar William Bennett told Stuart Varney Wednesday on Fox Business Network's Varney & Company.

In fact, Second-Amendment activists have been saying for a month, even before the February 24 attack on Ukraine, that Putin's aggression bolsters their position.

"Anti-gun commentators — Joe Biden among them — often mock the idea that an armed populace poses any obstacle to a modern military force," the NRA's Institute for Legislative Action wrote on February 7. "But some are singing a different tune, now that ordinary Ukrainians are taking up arms in response to a potential Russian invasion."

Josh Sugarmann, executive director of the anti-gun Violence Policy Center, accused the NRA of using a crisis to promote its political agenda. "Militarized firearms sold in the U.S. will never be fired to repel foreign invaders, but they are being used in the mass shootings and daily gun violence that define our nation," he said.

Among those who have been chronicling the situation in order to further its pro-firearms cause is Guns In The News, which, two weeks before the invasion, noted that a lawyer in the Ukraine told The New York Post that, "We always look at the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. It is not just about self-protection, but the protection of freedom and the protection of independence."

One of those "singing a different tune," as the NRA put it, is the group Occupy Democrats, which tweeted on February 24: "Ukraine's Interior Minister announces that 10,000 automatic rifles have been handed out to the civilians of Kyiv as they prepare to fight tooth and nail to defend their homes against Putin's invasions. RT if you stand with the brave Ukrainian People!"

Ever since that tweet, pro-gun activists been mocking the group for what they perceive as hypocrisy, given that in 2016 the group tweeted: "No civilian needs an AR-15, regardless of whatever mental gymnastics you do. You are a very special breed of stupid."

One of the groups sharing the seemingly diametrically opposite tweets from Occupy Democrats, which did not respond to Newsweek's request for comment, is the Firearms Policy Coalition.

"Russia's invasion of Ukraine unequivocally reinforces the importance of the right to bear arms beyond defense against single attackers and reminds Americans that the Second Amendment is as relevant today as ever," communications director Dan Dement told Newsweek.

"Gun controllers," added law Professor Randy Barnett, director of the Georgetown Center for the Constitution, "have long insisted that Americans don't need guns for personal defense because they can rely on police protection, and they don't need guns to resist tyranny because small arms are no match for modern military. The events of 2020-22 have shown both claims to be unrealistic."

Nevertheless, strict laws against gun ownership are a staple of every country that was once part of the Soviet Union, and Ukraine was no exception until the days leading to the Russian invasion, when its parliament approved a draft law that gave citizens the right to arm themselves for the purpose of self defense, opening the way for the government to hand out free rifles, and for American pro-gun activists to seize on that moment.

"Better late than never," wrote Bearing Arms podcaster Cam Edwards. "This is a 'break glass in case of emergency' moment, which is why the country's parliament is now apparently willing to reverse decades of restrictions and allow citizens the ability to carry firearms. I just hope it's not a case of too little, too late."

On February 24, just after gun regulations were eased and Russia began its invasion, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky tweeted: "We will give weapons to anyone who wants to defend the country. Be ready to support Ukraine in the squares of our cities."

Since then, dozens of outlets have published and broadcast stories of everyday Ukrainian citizens obtaining guns to defend their homeland: "A guerrilla war fought by dentists, coaches and housewives," as the Associated Press put it.

The situation in Ukraine undermines Biden's gun control narrative of "no one needs an AR-15. Period," or "no way an AK-47 is going to take care of you," said Aidan Johnston, director of federal affairs for Gun Owners of America.

"Severe gun control policies infringed on the rights of Ukrainian citizens to keep and bear arms until the very moment a nuclear world superpower launched its ground invasion," Johnston told Newsweek. "Now it's up to the government to pass out as many fully automatic weapons as it can in the hopes that civilians might successfully repel a Russian invasion."

But John Lott, president of the pro-gun Crime Prevention Center, says that using Ukraine to argue for less gun control in the U.S. is a short-term strategy at best, noting that a 2019 Gallup Poll concluded that 63 percent of gun owners purchased their weapon for personal safety, not to protect the U.S. from an invading army.

The pro-gun arguments that resonate with Americans, Lott told Newsweek, are that "police budgets are being cut, inmates are being released, bail is being reformed and there are spikes in violent crime."

He notes, though, that Eastern European countries are rethinking their opposition to gun ownership, and he has been advising pro-gun activists from the Czech Republic, Poland, Slovakia and Astonia ever since the Russian invasion.

"A lot of these countries have laws left over from the Communist era when gun ownership was basically banned," Lott said. "In the Ukraine, less than 2 percent legally owned a gun until the invasion, then 18,000 fully automatic rifles were handed out in one day. It's still a fraction of the population of 41 million and small compared to the size of the Russian army, but it can get other countries to move before it all hits the fan."

Ukraine volunteers
Civilian volunteers check their guns at a Territorial Defence unit registration office on February 26 in Kyiv, Ukraine. Explosions and gunfire were reported around Kyiv on the second night of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, which has killed scores and prompted widespread condemnation from U.S. and European leaders. Chris McGrath/Getty Images