Fellow Travelers

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Nazis, gun control, and opposing dictators backed by modern militaries


In 1938 the Nazis passed the "Nazi Weapons Act of 1938". People who seek to use the Nazis as the bogeymen of Gun Control will tell you that it was a restriction on guns used to further solidify their power. There's a lot of things there that they're ignoring, facts about history that they're pretending don't exist in order to further their political ideology. Something I expect they have in common with the Nazis.

First, firearms were heavily regulated in Germany at the time the Nazis came to power. After Germany lost WW1, firearms ownership was sharply restricted in accordance with the treaty of Versailles. The 1919 “Regulations on Weapons Ownership” (Verordnung des Rates der Volksbeauftragen ├╝ber Waffenbesitz, Reichsgesetzblatt 1919, Volume I, § 1, page 31–32) required that all firearms, and all kinds of firearms ammunition, be surrendered immediately. Anyone possessing firearms was subject to five years imprisonment and a fine of 100,000 marks. This was made law as a result of conditioned we imposed on Germany after they lost World War 1. Military weapons were further restricted in 1920, in accordance with the treaty.

Gun control laws were actually loosened by later laws passed by the Germans. The 1928 “Law on Firearms and Ammunition” rolled back the 1919 law which explicitly banned all private gun ownership. It relaxed gun restrictions, and allowed private persons to possess firearms. However, they had to have separate permits to own or sell firearms, carry firearms, manufacture firearms, or deal in firearms and ammunition. It gave discretion in issuing licenses to the issuing authority, what we’d know in the US as “may issue” instead of “shall issue”, and licenses were only available to “persons of unquestioned trustworthiness” (Halbrook, Stephen P. (2000) "Nazi Firearms Law and the Disarming of the German Jews."). Even so, this was a loosening of restrictions from the post-WW1 law which said “nobody can own guns”.

Supporters of unrestricted gun ownership are fond of pointing out that the Nazis passed a gun control law in 1938. Yes, they did, it was called the German Weapons Act. What this act did is that, for specific people, it reduced gun controls in place from the 1928 and 1919 laws. It removed restrictions on rifles, shotguns, and on ammunition, only keeping restrictions in place for handguns. In the 1928 law, only a handful of people were exempt from needing firearms acquisitions permits. The 1938 law expanded exemptions, to anyone who held hunting permits, government workers, and members of the Nazi Party, making it easier for these individuals to obtain firearms.

Gun ownership ages were lowered by the 1938 law, from 20 to 18. This is often misrepresented by gun control opponents, who say the 1938 law “restricted gun ownership to people 18 and older”. Heck, our laws do that now, because it’s widely considered a bad idea for children to own guns. Additionally, the carry permit for firearms had its effective term increased from one year to three years. It was a law intended to make it easier for the right kind of people, young military-age Germans (preferably Nazi Party members) to own guns. 

The only element of the 1938 law that restricted gun ownership was that it prohibited Jews from manufacturing or owning firearms or ammunition. This really didn’t make much of a difference. Kristallnacht had already happened; tens of thousands of Jews were already being sent to the concentration camps or, if lucky, deported out of Reich-controlled territory. Faced with the military power of the Third Reich, a few civilian-level rifles and pistols would not and did not make that much difference. A handful of armed Jews and Poles in the Warsaw ghettos put up quite a little fight… but ultimately the side with *flamethrowers* won, the ghettos were razed, and a concentration camp put up in their place.

Yes, the Nazis imposed brutal restrictions on gun ownership in the countries they conquered. Believe me, we’re not gentle about firearms ownership in Afghanistan, nor were we in Iraq during the invasion and occupation there. Of course a conquering power disarms the people it conquers. Losing sides in wars are disarmed by the winning side. We did the same thing to the Germans after WW1 (Treaty of Versailles: Articles 159-213; Military, Naval, and Air Clauses) and WW2. It is utterly irrelevant to whether or not gun control laws are a symbol of creeping totalitarianism.

And really, that’s the whole point of this. Totalitarian governments arise on the backs of popular movements. Tyrants are given the reins of the state by the people of that state, the military is given power by the people of the state, and then that power is used towards ill ends. Whether or not gun ownership is present and widespread, or heavily restricted and controlled, makes little difference one way or the other.

During the time of the American Revolution, military equipment was effectively uniform. Nothing more than cannons and muskets, on both sides. These weapons were relatively simple for a decently-sized community to produce and support. The Civil War was the first war where divergent levels of military technology really made a difference, with the Sharps Rifle and the Henry Repeating Rifle showing up the more primitive arms used by the Confederacy. However, the First World War heralded military technology that made the reality of gun ownership as it relates to opposing a government completely irrelevant.

You will not stand against even a WW1 era military with personal small arms. That doesn’t work against air power, and it doesn’t work against tanks or against flamethrowers. Guerilla warfare is possible, but really hit or miss on if it will be successful, and it rarely manages to overthrow a government without significant support from large sections of the military, or in countries without a powerful or effective military. Modern military technology means that the military in nearly any country has phenomenal power, more than any individual or group of private citizens could have, and if you do not have them on your side, you will lose, and if you do have them on your side, you get your arms from them and yours don’t matter too much anyway.

In countries with a military that does not defect to the rebels, rebellions are crushed. And they are crushed brutally. Examples include the United Liberation Front of Assam in India and the Zapatista uprising in Mexico. Some examples where military defection led to a successful revolution include the Romanian Revolution of 1989 and the Indonesian Revolution of 1998, both of which succeeded due to a split military. most recently, the revolution in Libya succeeded due to defections from the military, and also because of foreign military support from NATO. 

This is not an argument for gun control, it is an argument against those arguments that oppose gun control on the grounds that it would facilitate a totalitarian dictatorship, and who say that gun ownership protects against tyranny.  There are plenty of other reasons to own guns, but the best argument for ownership of, say, semiautomatic military styled rifles, is to defend yourself on an individual level in the event of a temporary or long term breakdown of social order and law. You will not stand up to a modern military with an M4. You will, however, be able to stand up to groups of organized looters or other bandits. And with the rise in weather related disasters, things like Hurricane Sandy and Hurricane Katrina, or massive blackouts from winter storms, having that capacity can come in very handy. 

Whether or not this potential use outweighs the very real spree killings involving these particular types of firearms will be a matter for us to debate and legislate as a democratic society. No matter what happens, it won't have nearly as much bearing on the rise or success of a dictatorship as restrictions on free speech, the elimination of personal privacy, and the rise of a pervasive surveillance state. An ever-present police state and dramatically skewed and unfair legal system is a much greater tool of tyranny than gun control laws could ever hope to be, and gun control is often secondary to the goals of tyrants.