It is no secret that American progressives would love to do away with the Second Amendment of the Constitution. Conservatives, on the other hand, are adamant about protecting our right to bear arms, which they claim serves as a check on government tyranny: An armed citizenry makes it harder for a government to act against its people.
Last week, Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson created a firestorm when he used Nazi Germany as an example of a government that was able to act because it had first disarmed its citizens. He told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that: “The likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the [German] people had been armed.”
Carson went on to add: “There’s a reason these dictatorial people take the guns first.”
Although Carson’s comment seems rather mild, the reaction to it was swift and overwhelmingly negative. Amanda Marcotte wrote in Salon:
Apparently, Ben Carson didn’t think blaming the victims of the Oregon shooting was going low enough, so he doubled down, reaching for what may be the most repulsive victim-blaming possible: Arguing that the Holocaust wouldn’t have happened if Jewish victims had offered armed resistance… these comments verge on being a form of Holocaust denialism.
The Anti-Defamation League response stressed that talking about the Holocaust in the context of the gun control debate was offensive:
The argument goes something like this: If Jews and others had had freer access to more guns in the run up to Hitler’s assuming power and had been able to use those guns to fight back against the Third Reich, then there wouldn’t have been a Holocaust, or far fewer would have perished. This historical second-guessing is deeply offensive to Jews, Holocaust survivors and those who valiantly fought against Hitler during World War II.
Meanwhile, “actor” Seth Rogen took the high road with this tightly reasoned argument:
Could the Holocaust have been stopped if German Jews had been armed?
Alternate history speculation tends to be a waste of time because there is no correct answer. This case is no exception.
While Carson does not deserve the opprobrium that was heaped upon him, he was probably too optimistic about what German Jews could have done to resist the Nazis if they had been armed.
According to historian Paul Johnson, European Jews, because of their minority status, developed a tradition of negotiating with their governments to protect their communities. Organizing an armed resistance would probably would not have occurred to them until it was too late. Thus, I think that the Anti-Defamation League is correct in their assessment:
It is mind bending to suggest that personal firearms in the hands of the small number of Germany’s Jews (about 214,000 remaining in Germany in 1938) could have stopped the totalitarian onslaught of Nazi Germany when the armies of Poland, France, Belgium and numerous other countries were over-whelmed by the Third Reich.
But what was lost in the brouhaha over the Holocaust was Carson’s larger point. His real point is that an armed populace is a good thing because it can be used as a check against tyranny. Therefore, Carson would argue, it would be unwise for the US to undo the Second Amendment or implement restrictive gun control policies.
The history of gun control in Germany supports Carson’s argument
Carson made his case for an armed citizenry in his book, A More Perfect Union where he claims:
German citizens were disarmed by their government in the late 1930s, and by the mid-1940s Hitler’s regime had mercilessly slaughtered six million Jews and numerous others whom they considered inferior… Through a combination of removing guns and disseminating deceitful propaganda, the Nazis were able to carry out their evil intentions with relatively little resistance.
Critics of Carson have been quick to point out that he was partially wrong here. The Nazi government didn’t disarm German citizens. It actually liberalized gun control laws—at least for the majority of its population.
After Germany was defeated in World War I, the victorious allies forced Germany to agree to harsh terms of surrender in the Treaty of Versailles. One of these terms required Germany to disarm, so in compliance with that term, the Weimar government passed a law in 1918 called the “Regulations on Weapons Ownership.”
The law required German citizens to surrender all their firearms and ammunition immediately. Any citizen who was found possessing a firearm could be punished with heavy fines and a sentence of up to five years in prison.
As the Nazi Party began to gain power, they were instrumental in relaxing the gun control laws with the passage of a 1928 law that allowed Germans to once again possess firearms if they first obtained a permit.
When the Nazis came to full power, they passed yet another relaxation of gun control in 1938. They completely deregulated long guns and ammunition—permits were only required for handguns. They also lowered the age when one could apply for a handgun permit from 20 to 18. Finally, the Nazis also extended the duration of the permit from one year to three.
However, the 1938 law also banned Jews from participating in the manufacture or sale of firearms or ammunition. Later that year, the Nazis went further and completely disarmed the Jews with a law that prohibited them from possessing weapons of any sort, including clubs, knives, or guns and ammunition.
The history of gun control in Germany provides a couple of lessons. First, dictatorial regimes do not necessarily disarm their citizens—only those elements of the population that are disfavored by the state.
The second lesson is that disarming a population is, as Ben Carson implied, a way of punishing and subjugating that population. After World War I, the allies wanted to completely humiliate and subjugate Germany, and one of the ways they did this was by ensuring that Germans were not armed.
Similarly, the Nazis ensured that Jews had no weapons to defend themselves. This shows that Nazis knew that allowing German Jews to have weapons would have made implementing the Holocaust at least a little more difficult.
American military policy implies that arming a population works
In the US, the Democratic Party is strongly in favor of gun control. President Obama has gone so far as to express praise for Australia’s gun control law, where all guns, with a strictly controlled exception for rifles and shotguns, were confiscated and banned.
This is interesting because the military policy of the US suggests that arming a group can enable that group to resist or even overthrow its ruling government. The US often arms rebels within certain countries in order to destabilize those nations.
The most famous example of this was the US arming of the Mujahideen in the Afghan-Soviet conflict. The Soviet Army was trained to fight a conventional enemy, but they were unprepared to fight the low-level guerilla warfare waged by the Mujahideen. This conflict demonstrated that arming and training a highly motivated force of civilians could even overcome a super power.
Even the Obama Administration continues to make use of the strategy of arming rebel groups, albeit very ineptly. The Department of Defense admitted to spending $42 million dollars to train only 54 “moderate” Syrian rebels who were supposed to fight ISIS, or more likely, Syrian president Assad. However, only “four or five” of the fighters were actually in the field—a pretty sorry return on investment.
Again, the United State’s use of arming the civilians of other countries to rebel against their government supports Carson’s contention.
Ben Carson probably overestimated what German Jews could have done to resist Hitler, but he is correct in implying that governments are likely to disarm populations that they are bent on subjugating. The corollary is also true: An armed citizenry is more capable of resisting tyranny.
But history shows that merely having handguns is not enough to resist a heavily armed modern state such as Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. To do that would require a motivated fighting force, a high degree of training and organization, and special equipment, such as the weapons the US provided to the Mujahideen during the Afghan-Soviet war. Anything short of that kind of organization would merely pose a mere nuisance to the firepower possessed by modern states.
Having easy access to firearms comes with a cost—it means there is an increased risk of gun violence. But it also provides a check on government tyranny. Americans would be wise to think twice before allowing the government to limit their right to bear arms.