Carolina Journal Opinions

Halbrook: Gun Control Under Tyrants Offers Lessons

Dec. 31st, 2013
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• Stephen P. Halbrook, Gun Control in the Third Reich: Disarming the Jews and ‘Enemies of the State,’ The Independent Institute, 2013, 247 pages, $27.95.

RALEIGH — Anyone who participates in serious discourse will encounter at some point the reductio ad Hitlerum, a glib attempt to dismiss some person or policy by comparison to “the rise of Nazi Germany.” The vast literature on that theme, it turns out, contains little about gun control. In fact, Stephen Halbrook’s Gun Control in the Third Reich is the first serious book on the subject and, fortunately, much more than an examination of laws and regulations. The author, an attorney and research fellow with the Independent Institute, knows that gun control ultimately is about people such as Albert Flatow, a German Jew who won first place in gymnastic events at the 1896 Olympic games.

In 1932, a year before the Nazis took power, Flatow registered three handguns as required by a decree of the Weimar Republic, which sought to register, regulate, and (eventually) prohibit firearms. A 1919 order had demanded surrender of all firearms, but it was widely ignored, especially by radicals and violent gangs. A 1926 Bavarian law barred Gypsies from owning guns. Failure to renew a valid gun license was grounds for conviction of unlawful possession.

By 1928, the Weimar government shifted from policies banning firearms ownership and instead began requiring a license to manufacture, assemble, or repair firearms and ammunition — even to reload cartridges. Trade in arms was prohibited at fairs and shooting competitions. As Halbrook notes, these measures proved ineffective in quelling violence and extremist factions armed themselves by any means necessary. Germans citizens, meanwhile, had no legal right to bear arms or keep arms in the home. Likewise, the German working class possessed few firearms and no tradition of keeping and using them. So the Weimar prohibitions, enforced by the police, only “restricted average citizens who voluntarily submitted to the state’s rule, so that little room existed for the development of a single body of armed citizens who supported democracy to play a dissuasive role against tyranny or extremism.”

Worse, the gun registration records of the Weimar Republic fell into the hands of the NSDAP, the National Socialist German Workers Party, more commonly known as the Nazi Party. Nazi official Wilhelm Elfes ruled that weapons belonged only in the hands of the organs of the Reich and the states. In the Nazi view, nobody needed a firearm for self-defense when the police protected society and sport shooting and hunting were not a “need,” as determined by the government.

Halbrook shows how the National Socialists advanced Gleichshaltung, the forcing into line of all institutions into a totalitarian system. So they used the Weimar regulations to deny access to firearms to anyone who was not an adherent of Nazism. The purge included the Stahlhelm, a veterans group critical of the Nazi regime, and Halbrook includes a table of “unreliable” types who were targeted. Leschke, a truck driver, “is definitely not a member of the NSDAP. His firearms license will be revoked.” And the author notes that German Jews were a particular target even before the infamous Nürnberg Laws took effect.

The National Socialist measures barred air rifles and even sharpened shovels. Possession of a permit did not rule out mandatory surrender of weapons and ammunition on demand. A German citizen could be acquitted by a normal court then taken by the Gestapo. By such means the National Socialist police state “approached near-complete control of firearms possession and use by the populace.” With people disarmed, “no foundation would exist for any effective resistance movement or individual acts of resistance. The way was paved for total repression.” Further, “it was only after Reichskristallnacht, when the Jewish population was largely and systematically disarmed, that the Nazis’ iron grip on the country was evident for everyone to see.”

On Oct. 4, 1938, the Nazis arrested Olympic champion Flatow for being a Jew in lawful possession of the firearms he dutifully had registered in 1932 under the Weimar decree. His arrest report stated that “arms in the hands of Jews are a danger to public safety.” Flatow was turned over to the Gestapo and died of starvation in Theresienstadt Concentration Camp in December 1942. Halbrook finds it hard to imagine that Flatow had no regrets about registering his pistols in 1932 and obediently surrendering them in 1938. And he charts the broader lessons of Nazi gun control.

“A disarmed populace 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.” On the other hand, “an armed populace with a political culture of allowed constitutional and natural rights that they are motivated to fight for is less likely to fall under the sway of a tyranny.”

Beyond its historical value, Gun Control in the Third Reich certainly should motivate American readers to cherish and protect their constitutional rights to keep and bear arms. The book also serves as a primer on the National Socialist regime, particularly for those puzzled by the reductio ad Hitlerum. Those who deploy that fallacy are fond of comparing the National Socialist regime, which they portray as “right wing,” to free-market conservatism.

Gleichshaltung leaves no room for anything like that, but Gun Control in the Third Reich does provide one clear example of laissez-faire under German National Socialism. When Rollkommandos — Nazi wrecking crews — attacked the disarmed and terrified opponents of the regime, the National Socialists ordered the police not to intervene. That’s what can happen when a militant state manages to disarm the populace.

Lloyd Billingsley is a contributor to Carolina Journal.