There is a refrain on the American political scene that “a free people is an armed people”—the idea being that the first thing Lenin or Hitler does is “come for yer guns”, although, if you read accounts of post-Bolshevik Russia, all sorts wandered round with firearms. For the Americans, the idea is tied into their own war for independence—if there had been no rifles, there would have been no independence. There is some truth in this assertion—it is harder to subdue men with firearms than without, no attempt to overthrow a government can succeed without arms.
However, it has been greatly exaggerated due to the nature of the American debate over gun ownership—so that it has become a shibboleth “if we have guns, the government cannot become a tyranny” (we are safe). What really keeps a people free? The same factors that grant victory in war: morale and space to manoeuvre. So long as you have the will to resist and space to withdraw to if you lose a battle, you cannot be subdued. The latter is famously the great Russian advantage: you can beat the Russians again and again in battles, even if they send waves of men armed with sticks to face you—and yet they have so much space they can always withdraw, escape your encirclements, and regroup. So that as long as they have the will to resist, they are difficult to defeat—even if they are down to bows and arrows.
Imagine Judge Dredd’s Megacity One—a heavily armed urban area. Are people there free? Not particularly, since they have nowhere to withdraw—they are easily trapped in their apartment blocks and mopped up by Judge Dredd. A similar situation exists in Britain: it would be hard to resist the government because there is nowhere to go—everything is highly urbanised and the spaces for retreat are tiny. What actually keeps America free? Her vast space, much genuinely remote, into which you can vanish.