Like many Americans last weekend, I was horrified and overwhelmed by the simultaneous massacres in Dayton, OH and El Paso, TX. After a few days, though, in keeping with the purpose of this blog, I began to consider parallels with World War II. I googled gun control during the Third Reich. Up popped a book on just that. Written by attorney Stephan P. Halbrook, Guns in the Third Reich: Disarming Jews and 'Enemies of the State,' traces the history of gun registration beginning with Weimar Germany.
Fearing civil war, the Weimar government tried to control violence between the Communists and Nazis. In 1919, after repressing a Communist uprising, the government banned firearms and ordered citizens to surrender them and ammunition, as Halbrook writes. The penalty for not complying: five years in prison and a fine. The next year, the Law on the Disarmament of the People was implemented by house-to-house firearms searches and confiscations.
The government enacted a new firearms law in 1928 that relaxed the previous one, allowing citizens to own guns and carry ammunition if they obtained licenses. Authorities had the power to grant these permits or not. The law also regulated the manufacture and sale of firearms.
Three years later, the government authorized the states within Germany to require gun registration and to confiscate weapons. By 1932, the gun industry was facing collapse, so the government lifted some regulations.
When in 1933 the Nazis came to power, Hitler used the gun registration records to identify and disarm political opponents. That meant mainly Jews. In late 1935, a Gestapo directive stated that "as a rule, we have to assume that firearms in the hands of the Jews represent a considerable danger for the German people." Three years later, Hitler signed a new gun control act that further loosened restrictions, especially for Nazi Party members. Jews, however, were ordered to surrender their weapons to "render them defenseless so that their ill-gotten property could be redistributed as an entitlement to the German people," writes Halbrook. Weeks before Kristallnacht, to foil any opposition the Nazis revoked Jews' gun licenses and searched their homes for weapons.
Halbrook is a pro-gun, Second Amendment attorney who has won three cases he argued before the Supreme Court. He also serves as outside counsel to the National Rifle Association. The Independent Institute, a libertarian think-tank where Halbrook is a research fellow, published his book a year after the Sandy Hook tragedy. Shortly after that attack, Senate Republicans refused to pass a modest, bipartisan bill to expand background checks. In response, President Obama signed 23 executive actions intended to reduce gun violence. Several were designed to buttress the federal background check system by requiring federal agencies to share relevant data.
Halbrook has said that only law-abiding people obeyed Weimar's gun control laws and that the government warned that lists of gun owners could fall into the hands of radicals. Exactly that occurred when the Nazis came to power, he notes. The NRA has been at the forefront of this historical argument since the late 1960s, according to Professor of Law Bernard E. Harcourt. NRA past president Charlton Heston and current president Wayne LaPierre have emphasized a connection between gun registration and the Holocaust. Heston: "Any of the monsters of history—such as Hitler and Stalin––confiscated privately held firearms as their first act." LaPierre: "A people disarmed is a people in danger."
In 1938, Jewish Berliners relinquished 1,700 firearms. Is the NRA trying to tell me that if my great-grandfather Heinrich Finkelstein had owned a gun and refused to obey that new law, he would not have been in danger? That armed, he could have resisted the coming onslaught? That he would not have been on some list? That he would not have had to flee Germany in 1940? I mean, despite having weapons the French Army was unable to defend France.
These statements and other arguments for the right to bear arms and against registration have lost sight of the type of arms the Founding Fathers had in mind when they wrote the Second Amendment. They stated that "A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." Muskets were the weapons of the day. In Weimar Germany, the concern was bolt-action rifles and revolvers. The Founders could not have fathomed citizens using on one another assault weapons with easily reloadable magazines. Furthermore, they linked the right to bear arms to a military unit. They said nothing about individual ownership of arms for personal defense, as historian Saul Cornell has noted.
It is a distortion of history to suggest that the Nazis' use of gun control and abuse of gun registries to destroy the Jews are reasons to prevent gun control here. Yet many White Supremacists here today believe that extremist groups want to infringe their Second Amendment rights to disarm and destroy them. One Amazon reviewer of Halbrook's book warned that the Marxist/Socialists "will not rest, and when they finally get a majority in favor of stripping up [sic] of our arms, the time for revolution will be upon us. The Marxist Democrats lust for a disarmed public, and they will not rest until it happens."
But White Supremacists are the very radicals of which most law-abiding Americans are wary. They, themselves, are associated with fascism. At gun shows, you are far more likely to see a swastika and other Nazi paraphernalia, says Harcourt, than at the anti-gun Million Mom March on the Washington Mall.
On the second anniversary of Charlottesville, has anyone rioted shouting "White Supremacists will not replace us?" The parents of the dead children of Sandy Hook do not seek to suppress all gun owners. Congregants of the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh are unlikely to burst into gun owners' homes in search of arms and, upon finding them, jail the owners. Nor are worshippers of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine black parishioners were shot and killed in 2015. And the relatives of murdered people of color in El Paso and Dayton…need I go on?
It's obvious that White Supremacists are not the victims here.