Gun Control Then And Now. Does History Repeat Itself?

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It’s a standard argument among pro-gun advocates that gun control is antithetical to the norms and traditions of a free society.  And the proof that is usually thrown up consists of vague references to the efforts by dictators like Stalin, Mao and Hitler to disarm their own populations as a way of consolidating their repressive regimes.  Now we finally have a serious book on the subject written by Stephen Halbrook, an attorney whose resume shows him to be one of the most active, pro-gun litigators in the United States, including serving as Counsel to the NRA.

Halbrook’s book, Gun Control in the Third Reich, details the efforts byhitler the Nazis to disarm the German population, in particular the German Jews, between the advent of the regime in 1933 and the widespread anti-Jewish violence known as Kristallnacht that broke out in November, 1938.  It was the latter event that escalated anti-Jewish persecution from legal statutes to organized violence, and paved the way for a much wider consolidation of repression and dictatorial authority. The author shows how the Nazi government used gun control measures promulgated under the democratic, Weimer government, to identify and arrest Jews and other political undesirables, thus effectively frustrating the ability of anti-Nazi elements from resisting the growing tyranny of the National Socialist regime.

While Halbrook’s well-researched and balanced narrative is a significant contribution to modern European historiography, it is also, despite his claims to the contrary, an argument against current efforts to expand gun controls in the United States.  The author notes: “A disarmed population 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.”  [Page. 218] If anyone believes that this statement is anything other than a thinly-veiled reference to the anti-gun ‘dangers’ of the Obama Administration, I refer you to a recent statement, among many others, made by Jim Porter, current President of the NRA, who argues that Obama’s attacks against the 2nd Amendment are just another example of his “usurpation” of Congressional authority.  Isn’t that exactly how Germany slid from the democracy of Weimar to the tyranny of Hitler?

It’s a nice and simple way of viewing the world to assume that one government’s attempts to disarm its own population is no different from any other attempt.  Unfortunately, it’s not true.  The original gun control measure passed by Weimer in 1920, and then refurbished by the Nazis in 1938, came about as the government’s response to organized, armed political violence from political movements both on the Right and the Left.  The extension of gun control by the Nazis was motivated by a similar desire to disarm groups that posed a political threat to the government, insofar as these populations, including Jews and Communists, were considered “enemies” of the State. At no time did either Weimar or the Nazis ever consider or even discuss gun control in response to non-political violence of any kind.

The last time that anyone in the United States took up arms against the U.S. Government was the bombing of Fort Sumter in Charleston Harbor on April 12, 1861.  And while the initial impetus for the first federal gun control law in 1968 was the assassination of JFK, nobody ever imagined that Lee Harvey Oswald was spearheading an all-out assault on our political institutions or laws.  Whether it takes the form of crimes (homicide, assault) or mental illness (suicide), gun control initiatives in this country always flow from concerns about gun violence perpetrated by citizens against themselves or others, not violence either for or against the State.  In fact, data gathered by the United Nations shows that we are the only country in the entire world whose level of gun violence rises to levels found only in Third World countries where the use of small arms is still a destabilizing political or economic force.

Don’t get me wrong.  Halbrook’s book is a welcome addition to the literature on the organization and consolidation of the Nazi regime.  But what this country needs is a serious and sober discussion about how to limit and ultimately eradicate gun violence, and this discussion will not take place if either side continues to justify their positions by taking historical events out of context and pretending that they somehow apply to the present day.

The United Nations Speaks Out On Gun Violence

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The United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime has published a study of global homicide that should be required reading for everyone who has an interest in dealing with gun violence.  The 100+-page report is breathtaking in its scope and detail, and is without doubt the most comprehensive study of its kind to ever see the light of day.  When it comes to talking about crime, violence and guns I’m not usually comfortable with cross-country comparisons because there are so many historical, economic, cultural and social variables that constitute the makeup of any country so as to make comparisons between countries risky at best. But what stands out in this report is its methodology and its comprehensiveness to the point that its analysis and conclusions simply can’t be overlooked.




The report is based on hundreds of published and unpublished sources, as well as homicide data from both law enforcement agencies and public health organizations in just about every one of the 192 countries that comprise the U.N.  I didn’t do an exact comparison, but a quick eyeball of the data appears to suggest that in countries where homicide data is available from both law enforcement agencies and public health organizations, that the latter number is more often higher than the former for reasons that the report does not make clear.  The report also gives very comprehensive, global data on the percentage of homicides in each country that are committed using guns. And here is where a cross-national comparison needs to be made.

Of all the countries that furnished data on the types of weapons used in homicides, the data suggests that slightly more than 40% of worldwide homicides were committed using a gun.  The United States, in this regard, contains roughly 2% of the world’s population but accounted for 4% of the world’s homicides, and has a gun-homicide rate in excess of 60%.  In Europe, by contrast, the gun homicide rate is slightly above 20%.    Last week, as I mentioned in a previous post, the Annals of Internal Medicine published a very important article covering research into suicide and homicide rates relative to access to guns.  The authors found a very strong correlation between gun access and suicide, and a less strong but nevertheless  noticeable link between homicides and guns.

I’ll burden you with only one link to the numerous research that has attempted to prove that there is not only a connection between our homicide rate and guns but the extent to which it is elevated because of easy access to guns.  And this research invariably “proves” this point by comparing data between the United States and other Western countries, most of whom have much lower homicide rates and make it much more difficult to buy and certainly to carry guns.  But in reading the U.N. report one statistic leaps off the page and makes me wonder whether this comparison means anything at all.

According to the U.N., Italy has  homicide rate of 1 per 100,000, which is basically the average for Europe as a whole.  By comparison, our homicide rate in this report is 5 times higher than Italy’s rate.  On the other hand, the report states that 60% of our homicides are committed with guns, but in Italy the rate of homicides committed with guns is nearly 70%.  As I said at the beginning of this post, it’s always difficult to make cross-country comparisons with any degree of certainty, but this comparison at least suggests that the correlation between homicide rates and access to guns may not be all that exact.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not casting doubt on the research efforts or outcomes of my public health colleagues when it comes to explaining the danger of guns.  I’m just impressed by the wealth of data assembled by the U.N. report and I only hope it gets wider attention here at home.


What Does That NRA Small-Arms Treaty Really Say?


Case O' Guns

Case O’ Guns (Photo credit: Gregory Wild-Smith)

Last month the Obama Administration joined 114 other countries and signed the UN Arms Trade Treaty, immediately setting off howls of protests by the NRA and its Congressional supporters insisting that this was just another example of the Administration’s desire to disarm America and take away all our guns.  According to Senator Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) the treaty undermines the 2nd Amendment guarantees of gun ownership because, among other provisions, it requires importers to identify end-users for whom small arms have been bought.

I have read every word of the treaty, it’s not a terribly lengthy document, and I think it would be worthwhile if I spend one post explaining what the treaty actually says.  Not that I’m assuming that anything I say will change anyone’s mind about the treaty, or the 2nd Amendment or anything else related to guns. But in all the hysteria that has been drummed up about this document by the NRA and its allies and friends, I have never seen the treaty text itself.  So here goes.

The treaty begins with a preamble that “reaffirms the sovereign right of any State to regulate and control conventional arms exclusively within its territory, pursuant to its own legal or constitutional system.”  This statement isn’t buried in some footnote; it’s found at the very beginning of the treaty itself.   Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t this mean that our government, and not the United Nations, gets to figure out how guns will be handled within the United States?

But what about the question of end users, because here’s where the NRA believes there lurks an attempt to create not just a national, but an international registry of all guns.  I quote again from the treaty text: “Each State Party shall maintain national records, pursuant to its national laws and regulations, of its issuance of export authorizations or its actual exports of the conventional arms….”  Now note what it says about imports: ” Each State Party is encouraged to include in those records: the quantity, value, model/type, authorized international transfers of conventional arms actually transferred, details of exporting State(s), importing State(s), transit and trans-shipment State(s), and end users, as appropriate.”

This is in fact no different than what U.S. exporters and importers must now do to comply with State Department and ATF regulations on export and import of small arms.  But the operative word here is encouraged; not required, just encouraged.  Signatories to this treaty are not bound by any requirements to either compile lists of import end-users (which we compile already) or deliver such lists to any international body.  The only required record-keeping involves the destination of exports, and correct me if I’m wrong, but only American citizens possess 2nd Amendment guarantees.

The NRA, the Washington Times, and all the other pro-gun stalwarts who make a living by ginning up the fears of gun owners every time that someone says anything even remotely connected to gun control might do us all a favor and stop concocting arguments out of whole cloth.  I know, I know, Obama’s a liberal which means he hates guns and he’ll do anything to  take them away.  But maybe it’s time to stop worrying about Obama and start thinking about how to convince rational and reasonable people that responsible gun ownership is the American way.

The real enemy of gun owners isn’t Washington and isn’t the UN.  The real enemy is any discussion in which facts and logic give way to noise and a lack of common sense.  I don’t need the NRA or Mayor Bloomberg to tell me about guns.  I can read as well as the next person and figure out what’s really going on. So can you.




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