The Russian invasion of their country has given Ukrainians a crash course on the importance of an armed citizenry to the security of a free state. Even before the first tanks rolled across the border Ukraine had relaxed its gun laws and allowed citizens to start carrying firearms for self-defense, and there’s been no shortage of stories of average citizens signing up for the Territorial Defense Forces or even fighting alongside the military to defend their towns from foreign invaders.
We’ve also seen multiple reports that the Russian military has been abducting some public officials and has a “kill list” of high priority targets; something that concerns Second Amendment attorney and scholar Stephen Halbrook, who says that the country’s gun control regime could give Russian troops a heads up about legal gun owners.
When the Soviet Union dissolved in 1991, Ukraine inherited Soviet restrictions on gun ownership, including strict licensing and registration requirements. Ukraine reported in 1997 that 722,739 civilians had registered firearms. According to GunPolicy.org, that left “uncounted a national stockpile of 1.5 million to 5.5 million undocumented, illicit small arms.” Illicit? When the state denies the right to have arms, subjects will do what is necessary to defend themselves. Should Mr. Putin win the current aggression, those with registered guns will be hunted down. Hunting down “undocumented” gun owners won’t be so easy.
As late as 2018, there were 892,854 registered firearms in Ukraine, compared to an estimated 3.5 million “illegal” firearms. This is the same pattern in states like California and New York, where laws requiring the registration of so-called “assault weapons” are largely ignored.
Halbrook also brings up a part of Ukraine’s recent history that I was unaware of; an attempt to enshrine the right to keep and bear arms in the country’s constitution. In early 2014, after then-president Viktor Yanukovych abdicated and fled to Russia, the newly-installed head of Ukraine’s legislature, Oleksandr Turchynov, unveiled a proposed constitutional amendment that would have guaranteed Ukrainians the right to own firearms for self-defense and defense of the nation.
First, military training was required for all able-bodied citizens.
Second, everyone had the right to defend their constitutional rights against the usurpation of power or encroachment on the sovereignty of Ukraine.
And third: “Every citizen of Ukraine has the right to possess firearms to protect his life and health, house and property, the life and health of others, constitutional rights and freedoms in case of usurpation of power, and encroachments on the constitutional order, sovereignty and territorial integrity of Ukraine.”
That broad language expressed the ideals held by our Founders, which found more concise expression in the Second Amendment. The Ukrainians seem to have improved on James Madison’s draftsmanship.
Mr. Putin did not recognize the legitimacy of the new government, and four days later, on Feb. 26, 2014, Russian troops invaded Crimea. Mr. Turchynov, who was also acting prime minister and commander of the Ukrainian Armed Forces, fought back against Russian surrogates engaged in terrorist activities. Still, Ukrainian forces were no match for the Russians and their toadies.
Mr. Putin hasn’t forgotten. Just days ago, amid the current invasion, Pravda called for bringing Mr. Turchynov to justice for his supposed “war crimes.”
Russia’s military annexation of Crimea brought the reform efforts to a halt, and the proposed constitutional amendment was not acted on. Only when the current invasion appeared imminent did the Rada enact a liberalized gun law, and the government handed out countless firearms to citizens.
I’ll be very curious to see if that proposed amendment gets new life in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion. Assuming that Ukraine remains a viable independent nation after the shooting stops, it’s difficult to imagine the country returning to a status quo antebellum that saw gun ownership as a privilege granted by the state instead of a right and responsibility of a free people determined to stay that way.
I also can’t help but wonder if Russia’s invasion of Ukraine will prompt some of its other neighbors to revisit their own gun laws. We’re already seeing reports that gun sales are soaring in several Eastern European nations that were either a part of the USSR or one of its satellites, and I doubt that Ukrainians are the only Europeans now rethinking their views on the value of an armed citizenry in the face of a foreign invasion.