If Jews in Nazi Germany had been free to own guns, would that have diminished the impact of the Holocaust? GOP presidential candidate Ben Carson candidate set off a political firestorm by proclaiming that it would have.
Gun-rights critics went on the attack, saying that the right to bear arms would have had no effect on the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust, given the overwhelming might of the Nazi regime. Thus, if German Jews couldn’t stand against the might of their government, gun control advocates say, then what chance would Americans have in resisting a tyrannical regime that took control of the U.S. government, given its overwhelming military power? Americans might as well permit themselves to be disarmed, the argument goes, because there is nothing that they could do anyway if ever faced with a tyrannical regime in Washington. Moreover, gun-control advocates argue, the possibility that the U.S. government would ever be headed by a tyrannical regime is virtually non-existent, owing to America’s exceptional nature. Tyranny happens in other countries. It could never happen here, they say.
If the American people accept those arguments and permit themselves to be disarmed, it will be the biggest mistake they will ever make. In fact, as federal appellate Judge Alex Kozinski pointed out in a dissenting opinion in the case of Silveira v. Lockyer, it is a mistake that a free people make only once. That’s because once the error becomes manifest, there is no way to correct it. Consider Kozinski’s words:
All too many of the other great tragedies of history — Stalin’s atrocities, the killing fields of Cambodia, the Holocaust, to name but a few — were perpetrated by armed troops against unarmed populations. Many could well have been avoided or mitigated, had the perpetrators known their intended victims were equipped with a rifle and twenty bullets apiece…. If a few hundred Jewish fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto could hold off the Wehrmacht for almost a month with only a handful of weapons, six million Jews armed with rifles could not so easily have been herded into cattle cars.
My excellent colleagues have forgotten these bitter lessons of history. The prospect of tyranny may not grab the headlines the way vivid stories of gun crime routinely do. But few saw the Third Reich coming until it was too late. The Second Amendment is a doomsday provision, one designed for those exceptionally rare circumstances where all other rights have failed — where the government refuses to stand for reelection and silences those who protest; where courts have lost the courage to oppose, or can find no one to enforce their decrees. However improbable these contingencies may seem today, facing them unprepared is a mistake a free people get to make only once.
Many Americans believe that gun rights are only about people’s right to hunt wild game or to protect themselves from violent criminals. But the right to keep and bear arms, which the Second Amendment to the Constitution guarantees from federal infringement, is not only about hunting or self-defense against private criminals. It is primarily about having the right and the ability to defend oneself, one’s family, and one’s country from the tyranny of the federal government.
The greatest threat to liberty
When the Constitution was proposed to the American people, most Americans were not enthusiastic about it. That’s because they were concerned that the federal government that the Constitution proposed to bring into existence would end up being as powerful and as tyrannical as the government under which they had lived until July 4, 1776. Keep in mind that after the Revolution, Americans lived for more than 10 years under the Articles of Confederation, which provided a central government whose powers were very weak. In fact, under the Articles the federal government didn’t even have the power to tax.
Our American ancestors understood a truth that all too many Americans fail to understand today: that the greatest threat to the freedom and well-being of a citizenry lies with their own government. That’s why Americans weren’t enthusiastic about the Constitution. They didn’t trust the idea of a strong central government. They were convinced that the new government would end up doing the types of things that tyrannical regimes do, including disarming citizens and rounding them up and torturing and killing them for such actions as criticizing governmental policies.
The proponents of the Constitution had a response to that concern. They said that the Constitution, by its own terms, would be calling into existence a federal government with expressly limited powers, all of which would be enumerated within the document itself. If a power wasn’t enumerated, it could not be exercised. Since the Constitution did not delegate the power to take people into custody and torture and kill them, for example, there was no need for people to be concerned.
Our American ancestors went along with the deal but only on one condition: that immediately after the Constitution was ratified, it would be amended in such a way as to make certain that the federal government lacked the legal authority to do such things to the American people. That’s what the First and the Second Amendments are all about. Those two amendments reflect the belief of our American ancestors that the federal government would deprive people of such fundamental rights as freedom of speech, press, and religion. Read those two amendments carefully. They’re not addressed to foreign regimes or persons who might threaten the United States. They address threats to liberty at the hands of U.S. officials.
The same goes for the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth, and Eighth Amendments, which guarantee trial by jury, the right to effective assistance of counsel, the right to confront witnesses, the right of due process of law, and the right to be free from cruel and unusual punishments. Like the First and the Second, those amendments are addressed to U.S. officials. By enacting those amendments, our American ancestors were effectively saying to federal officials: Don’t even think about it.
Our American ancestors understood something else about tyranny. They knew that there is only one way for tyrannical regimes to do bad things to the citizenry — through a powerful national police force or army. After all, rarely are the rulers of a tyrannical regime the ones actually doing the round-ups, torture, rapes, incarcerations, executions, or assassinations. Those things are usually done by the government’s well-armed police forces and military forces.
Another thing that our American ancestors understood about tyranny is that it’s much easier for the police and the military to do those things to a disarmed citizenry. When people are disarmed, their only real choice is to comply with the orders of the police and the military. When people are armed, they have another option — resistance by force.
That’s why our American ancestors demanded the enactment of the Second Amendment — to ensure that the American people would always have the right to resist tyranny by force.
That is what gun-control advocates just don’t get — that even when faced with the overwhelming might of the police and army of a tyrannical government, people nonetheless have the right to resist tyranny with force. They might well lose but they have the right to go down fighting and to take out as many agents of the tyrannical regime as they can. In the process of resisting tyranny with force, they make the tyrannical regime pay a price for enforcing its tyranny.
In an article in the Washington Post last fall entitled “Unarmed Jews Defeat Mass Murder: Revolts at the Extermination Camps,” David Kopel pointed out that violent revolts by Jews in some of Nazi Germany’s extermination camps “brought an end to the operations of two extermination camps.” Moreover,
every revolt delayed and impeded for at least some time the machinery of extermination. Every extra guard that was assigned to a camp because [of] Nazi fear of revolts was one less soldier on the front lines against the Allies…. There is a reason why governments which intend to send people to death camps always disarm them first. Once the genocide targets are armed, genocide becomes much more difficult. Killing armed victims is much more difficult than killing unarmed ones.
Since a government’s military and national police are the means by which a tyrannical regime imposes its tyranny on a citizenry, our American ancestors devised another way to protect themselves from potential tyranny. They made certain that the federal government lacked an enormous, permanent standing army, an intelligence force like the CIA, a surveillance agency like the NSA, and a national police force like the FBI. That was owing to their deep antipathy toward standing armies and the knowledge that standing armies are the means by which tyrants impose their tyranny on the populace.
That was the situation in the United States for more than a century of our nation’s existence. While enormous armies were called into existence during America’s major wars, they were always dismantled at the end of the wars, pursuant to the long-standing tradition of the American people against standing armies. That all changed after World War II, when the U.S. government was modified in a fundamental way by becoming what is known as a “national-security state,” a government that is characterized by such institutions as a vast standing army, a secretive intelligence force, and a super-secret surveillance agency. The thing to keep in mind about national-security states is that they are inherent to tyrannical regimes, in that they are the means by which such regimes impose and enforce their tyranny. China, for example, is a national-security state. So is Russia. So is North Korea.
So why did American abandon 150 years of heritage against standing armies at the end of World War II? The proponents of a national-security state said that it was necessary for the American people to temporarily modify America’s governmental system in order to confront the supposed threat of the communist Soviet Union, which itself was a national-security state. In order to defeat totalitarian tyranny, Americans were told, it would be necessary to graft a totalitarian-like apparatus to America’s governmental system. As soon as the Cold War was over, presumably the federal government would be returned to its original form, that is, as a limited-government, constitutional republic.
Twenty-five years after the end of the Cold War, however, the national-security state is still here. Proponents tell us that there is no need to be concerned because here in the United States, unlike the situation in totalitarian regimes, the national-security establishment is a friend of liberty and an enemy of tyranny. They say that while our American ancestors might have had reason to fear a standing army and an all-powerful government, there is no reason for modern-day Americans to have any such concerns. After all, aren’t Americans always praising the troops and thanking them for their service? How could the troops ever do anything bad to Americans?
There are several problems with that reasoning, however.
One is that when tyrannical regimes come into power, the troops inevitably follow orders. In those rare instances where a soldier refuses to obey orders, he is shot or otherwise removed from his position and replaced by someone else. That usually causes all the other troops to quickly fall into line. Recall, for example, that when U.S. troops were ordered to round up American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II and put them into concentration camps, the troops loyally obeyed orders. No one protested or refused to serve. Or consider when the troops were ordered to invade Iraq in 2003 without the constitutional declaration of war. They all loyally followed orders, notwithstanding the fact that the president was acting illegally under our form of government, notwithstanding the fact that they had all taken an oath to support and defend the Constitution, and notwithstanding the fact that they were attacking and killing people who had never attacked the United States.
Second, the troops are always indoctrinated with the notion that what they are doing is right and good. They’re not told that they are part of a tyrannical regime and that their actions are evil or immoral. They’re told that they are protecting “national security,” that they’re defending the rights and freedoms of the citizenry, or that they’re providing “order and stability” to the country. They’re told that the people against whom they are proceeding are “bad guys” — communists, terrorists, drug dealers, Muslim radicals, traitors, or dissidents. And the troops believe what they are told. It never occurs to them that they’re carrying out the orders of a tyrannical regime and engaging in evil or immoral actions. They are convinced that what they are doing is good.
In fact, that’s what the tyrants at the top believe too! Consider Nazi Germany. I doubt very seriously whether Hitler, Goering, Goebbels, or any other top Nazi official ever thought to himself, “I am a very evil person who is engaged in terribly evil acts.” Instead, many Nazi officials very likely believed that what they were doing was for the sake of the nation. It’s also why most Germans were willing to serve as soldiers in the German army and why most Germans believed in supporting the troops during wartime.
Or consider the brutal tyranny of the Chilean military general Augusto Pinochet, who headed a dictatorial regime that was also a national-security state. Upon ousting the democratically elected president of the country, Salvador Allende, from power, Pinochet’s military, intelligence, and surveillance forces initiated a reign of terror on the Chilean people, rounding up some 30,000 of them, putting them into military dungeons and concentration camps, torturing and raping them, and killing some 3,000 of them. Their “crime”? They were supporters of communism, socialism, and Allende. The fact that the Chilean people were unarmed owing to Chile’s gun-control laws made such actions easier to accomplish.
Through it all, Pinochet and his goons were convinced that they were doing the right thing. In fact, many Pinochet apologists today, including some right here in the United States, still maintain that Pinochet was a hero for trying to cleanse Chile of communists and communism. Pinochet’s troops, police, and intelligence forces felt the same way — that they were the “good guys” and those whom they were arresting, incarcerating, torturing, raping, and executing were the “bad guys.”
The point is that tyranny often comes from people who are convinced that what they are doing is good or necessary. As U.S. Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis put it, “The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachment by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.”
What is disturbing about Pinochet’s tyranny, insofar as it relates to the American people, is that the U.S. national-security establishment — i.e., the Pentagon and the CIA — believed the same thing that their counterparts in Chile believed — that Pinochet and his troops and police were doing the right thing. In fact, it was the U.S. government that initiated the steps and orchestrated the process that ultimately brought Pinochet to power, knowing full well what he was going to do and supporting his doing it. In fact, while Pinochet was wreaking terror across Chile, the U.S. government was flooding his regime with U.S. taxpayer-provided foreign aid.
That was during the 1970s; are things any different today? Consider the U.S. government’s ardent support of the brutal military dictatorship in Egypt, which is no different in principle from Pinochet’s brutal military dictatorship. No elections. No independent legislature or judiciary. Arbitrary arrests and incarcerations. Torture. Censorship. Executions without trial. Kangaroo courts. Yet, the U.S. government continues to flood the Egyptian regime with U.S.-taxpayer- provided weaponry so that it can better enforce its grip on power. Moreover, officials in the Pentagon and CIA continue working with their counterparts within the Egyptian regime to ensure that the regime is never violently overthrown by the Egyptian people. In fact, as noted New York attorney Lynn Stewart learned the hard way, any American who exhorts Egyptians to take up arms against the Egypt’s tyrannical regime will be prosecuted by U.S. officials as a supporter of terrorism, notwithstanding the U.S. Declaration of Independence, which expressly states that people have the fundamental, God-given right to overthrow tyrannical regimes.
Today, owing to the “war on terrorism” — a “war” brought about by the national-security state’s foreign policy in the Middle East — Americans live under a constant, never-ending state of emergency, one in which the national-security establishment wields the legal power to arrest Americans as suspected terrorists, incarcerate them indefinitely without trial, torture them, and assassinate them. Obviously, those types of actions have been taken against only a handful of Americans. But just watch what happens when the right crisis or war comes along, which might well happen sooner rather than later, given ongoing provocations by the military and the CIA in Ukraine, the South China Sea, Korea, and the Middle East. As our ancestors understood, a free society is not one in which the government is exercising tyrannical powers prudently but rather one in which the government lacks such powers.
One of the good things about widespread gun ownership among the American people is that such would-be tyrants are likely to think more carefully about whether to proceed in that manner than they would be if the American people were disarmed. Another good thing is that if that day were ever to come to pass, at least Americans would have an option that German Jews, Chilean citizens, and others in history did not — an option that most people in the world today do not have — the option to resist tyranny with force.
This article was originally published in the January 2016 edition of Future of Freedom.