Gun Control Then And Now. Does History Repeat Itself?

It’s a standard argument among pro-gun advocates that gun control is antithetical to the norms and traditions of a free society.  And the proof that is usually thrown up consists of vague references to the efforts by dictators like Stalin, Mao and Hitler to disarm their own populations as a way of consolidating their repressive regimes.  Now we finally have a serious book on the subject written by Stephen Halbrook, an attorney whose resume shows him to be one of the most active, pro-gun litigators in the United States, including serving as Counsel to the NRA.

Halbrook’s book, Gun Control in the Third Reich, details the efforts byhitler the Nazis to disarm the German population, in particular the German Jews, between the advent of the regime in 1933 and the widespread anti-Jewish violence known as Kristallnacht that broke out in November, 1938.  It was the latter event that escalated anti-Jewish persecution from legal statutes to organized violence, and paved the way for a much wider consolidation of repression and dictatorial authority. The author shows how the Nazi government used gun control measures promulgated under the democratic, Weimer government, to identify and arrest Jews and other political undesirables, thus effectively frustrating the ability of anti-Nazi elements from resisting the growing tyranny of the National Socialist regime.

While Halbrook’s well-researched and balanced narrative is a significant contribution to modern European historiography, it is also, despite his claims to the contrary, an argument against current efforts to expand gun controls in the United States.  The author notes: “A disarmed population that is taught that it has no rights other than what the government decrees as positive law is obviously more susceptible to totalitarian rule and is less able to resist oppression.”  [Page. 218] If anyone believes that this statement is anything other than a thinly-veiled reference to the anti-gun ‘dangers’ of the Obama Administration, I refer you to a recent statement, among many others, made by Jim Porter, current President of the NRA, who argues that Obama’s attacks against the 2nd Amendment are just another example of his “usurpation” of Congressional authority.  Isn’t that exactly how Germany slid from the democracy of Weimar to the tyranny of Hitler?

It’s a nice and simple way of viewing the world to assume that one government’s attempts to disarm its own population is no different from any other attempt.  Unfortunately, it’s not true.  The original gun control measure passed by Weimer in 1920, and then refurbished by the Nazis in 1938, came about as the government’s response to organized, armed political violence from political movements both on the Right and the Left.  The extension of gun control by the Nazis was motivated by a similar desire to disarm groups that posed a political threat to the government, insofar as these populations, including Jews and Communists, were considered “enemies” of the State. At no time did either Weimar or the Nazis ever consider or even discuss gun control in response to non-political violence of any kind.

The last time that anyone in the United States took up arms against the U.S. Government was the bombing of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861.  And while the initial impetus for the first federal gun control law in 1968 was the assassination of JFK, nobody ever imagined that Lee Harvey Oswald was spearheading an all-out assault on our political institutions or laws.  Whether it takes the form of crimes (homicide, assault) or mental illness (suicide), gun control initiatives in this country always flow from concerns about gun violence perpetrated by citizens against themselves or others, not violence either for or against the State.  In fact, data gathered by the United Nations shows that we are the only country in the entire world whose level of gun violence rises to levels found only in Third World countries where the use of small arms is still a destabilizing political or economic force.

Don’t get me wrong.  Halbrook’s book is a welcome addition to the literature on the organization and consolidation of the Nazi regime.  But what this country needs is a serious and sober discussion about how to limit and ultimately eradicate gun violence, and this discussion will not take place if either side continues to justify their positions by taking historical events out of context and pretending that they somehow apply to the present day.


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