Cathy Young is a contributing editor to Reason magazine.
Did gun control enable the Nazis' mass murder of Jews? That suggestion from Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson has set off a firestorm of debate and invective, with Carson ferociously criticized by gun control supporters and defended by gun rights advocates. Well, here's one supporter of gun ownership rights who thinks Carson's argument is both factually wrong and morally shaky.
The argument is a familiar one, made by a number of conservative and libertarian scholars and polemicists: If Europe's Jews had been armed, they would have been able either to defend themselves or, at least, like the fighters of the Warsaw ghetto, to slow the Nazi juggernaut. In this view, Nazi laws banning Jews from owning firearms were a deliberate measure to facilitate the Jews' destruction. This ties into the view, held by many Second Amendment activists, that an armed populace is an essential deterrent to government tyranny.
First, the facts: While the Nazis used gun regulations for political purposes, taking guns from opponents and giving them to supporters, disarming Jews was not very high on their list of priorities. The first gun seizures after Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933 targeted Communists and other anti-Nazi leftists, though there were some raids on Jewish neighborhoods with searches for weapons and "subversive" literature.
Germany's gun legislation, passed in 1938, banned gun ownership by "enemies of the state" but did not specifically mention Jews. It was only later that year, after the Kristallnacht pogrom, that the regime disarmed the Jews. Clearly, the measure's purpose was to make repressions against Jews easier. But this is where the parallel to modern-day gun control proposals in Western democracies fail. The Nazis did not use benign-sounding gun control laws in the name of public safety to disarm their intended victims and surreptitiously prepare them for slaughter. They barred Jews from owning guns as part of an overt and systematic assault on the Jews' civil rights.
What's more, this assault went on for years while at least some of Germany's Jews still legally owned firearms. Yet Jewish armed resistance in Germany was practically nonexistent. Individual Jews who tried to fight against mob violence during Kristallnacht were killed on the spot, and their self-defense was used as a pretext to round up Jewish men and send them to concentration camps.
One problem with Carson's claim is that it morphs easily into a much uglier argument that not only blames the Nazis for disarming the Jews but also blames the Jews for not rebelling. That assumption was made explicit in a column defending Carson by Fox News contributor Keith Ablow.
Yet the reality is that, in the modern world, individual citizens have a poor record of defending themselves against murderous totalitarian regimes. In the Soviet Union, many citizens brought weapons back from the front after World War II; it didn't stop Josef Stalin from conducting a new wave of purges.
Writing on The Federalist, a conservative website, commentator David Harsanyi points out that Israel's founding was aided by the strong belief that after the Holocaust, Jews should never again be helpless unarmed victims. True. But that is why Zionists wanted a Jewish state with its own military -- not Jewish private gun ownership in other countries.
Harsanyi, whose Jewish family comes from Eastern Europe, also admits he is "somewhat uncomfortable" with using the awful events "to make a point about guns" in a different set of circumstances.
And that's the other problem with Carson's comments. The Holocaust should never be a card to play in America's domestic political debates.
Cathy Young is a regular contributor to Reason magazine and Real Clear Politics.