A Salon.com article by Alex Seitz-Wald called “The Hitler Gun Control Lie” is making the rounds, purporting to challenge a myth Second Amendment enthusiasts spread that blames the Holocaust on Hitler’s policies of civilian disarmament. The thrust of the argument is that Hitler’s 1938 firearms law indeed ratcheted back restrictions from the Weimar era. But here is the most telling paragraph:
The law did prohibit Jews and other persecuted classes from owning guns, but this should not be an indictment of gun control in general. Does the fact that Nazis forced Jews into horrendous ghettos indict urban planning? Should we eliminate all police officers because the Nazis used police officers to oppress and kill the Jews? What about public works — Hitler loved public works projects? Of course not. These are merely implements that can be used for good or ill, much as gun advocates like to argue about guns themselves. If guns don’t kill people, then neither does gun control cause genocide (genocidal regimes cause genocide).
As a libertarian, I actually would argue that the violence of Hitler’s statism can be seen in such areas as his militarized police forces, and the totalitarian potential of a heavily policed society is one reason I’ve been so critical of America’s police.
Honing in on the gun rights issue, we see a most curious argument: Hitler was actually pro-gun rights—except for the minor issue of the Jews. We can get the same nuanced information from Wikipedia, which cites work by Stephen Halbrook and sums up Hitler’s gun control policy in this seemingly important area:
On November 11, 1938, the Minister of the Interior, Wilhelm Frick, passed Regulations Against Jews’ Possession of Weapons. This regulation effectively deprived all Jews of the right to possess firearms or other weapons.
Yes, Hitler did loosen some restrictions on firearms—except for the people he exterminated! The Seitz-Wald pieces relies heavily on a University of Chicago working paper by Bernard Harcourt, which includes this seemingly cursory dismissal of Hitler’s disarming of the Jews in the context of the Holocaust:
How to characterize their treatment of Jewish persons for purposes of gun control—banning the possession of dangerous weapons, including guns, in 1938, and subsequently exterminating Jewish persons—is, in truth, an absurd question. The Nazis sought to disarm and kill Jews, and their treatment of Jews is, for all intents and purposes, orthogonal to their gun-control tendencies.
Even if you don’t accept the standard “gun control = genocide” line coming from gun-rights advocates, this passage is just bizarre. If the question being debated is whether Hitler enacted gun control that enabled his murderous policies, it seems rather odd to me to concede that the “Nazis sought to disarm and kill Jews” yet assert in passing that genocide was “orthogonal to their gun-control tendencies.” Within a couple days of Kristalnacht, Hitler disarmed the very group he was most determined to eliminate. Even if this correlation is not causal, there is a relationship here. It is not random. It is not “orthogonal.”
Harcourt continues, writing that “if forced to weigh in, it actually seems, somewhat surprisingly, that the white supremacist Pierce may have the better of the argument: the Nazis were probably more pro-gun than their predecessors.”
He’s referring to one of the primary scholars behind the thesis that Hitler was pro-gun—William L. Pierce, “a pro-gun white supremacist” whose ”ideological commitments are so flagrant” that he cannot be “trusted entirely in these historical and statutory debates.” Harcourt says the same about Halbrook, “a pro-gun litigator.”
This raises interesting questions. Surely we could expect someone with a soft-spot for white supremacy to be at least as biased as a pro-gun lawyer like Halbrook. This is not to say that a writer with extreme views is incapable of producing useful scholarship. Yet I would suspect that Pierce’s efforts to vindicate Hitler as a gun-rights champion in Gun Control in Germany, 1928–1945 might suffer from a fatal flaw, if indeed the gravamen that has made its way from that book to the Harcourt piece to the Salon.com article is: Hitler supported the right to bear arms. . . except for the Jews and other people he wanted to kill, but that’s a minor detail.
Harcourt weighs the evidence and argues that Pierce’s account is more accurate than Halbrook’s, but I think this all turns on a question of emphasis. Consider this revealing paragraph:
To be sure, the Nazis were intent on killing Jewish persons and used the gun laws and regulations to further the genocide. But it appears that the Nazis aspired to a certain relaxation of gun laws for the “ordinary” or “law-abiding” German citizen, for those who were not, in their minds, “enemies of the National Socialist state.” Stephen Halbrook, in fact, seems to acknowledges as much.
Yes, Halbrook does admit it—because Halbrook’s point isn’t that Hitler disarmed everybody; it’s that he disarmed the people he wanted to exterminate. We can glean this from the very title of his paper: “Nazi Firearms Law and the Disarming of the German Jews.”
I hate seeing poor history used in defense of liberty, and I hate seeing the false Nazi and Hitler quotes floating around. On the other hand, it seems to me that disarming Jews was indeed clearly one of the precursors to the Final Solution, as Harcourt admits, and as Seitz-Wald mysteriously ignores by dismissing the importance of Hitler’s prohibition of “Jews and other persecuted classes from owning guns.” If the only revisionist response to the core thesis that disarming the Jews facilitated the Holocaust is something like “Hitler only disarmed the Jews and his enemies,” one wonders what the policy implication is, especially considering that most people happily citing the Salon.com piece without reading it carefully or digging deeper seem to want to go even further and disarm the general population.