ONE OF THE big questions most Americans ask in the context of our national debate about guns is why any civilian would need so many and such powerful guns, with fewer licensing requirements than it takes to drive a car legally. The only coherent answer I can discern from anti-gun control advocates is that ordinary citizens need to arm themselves to prevent repression by the government (colorfully characterized in 1995 by NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre’s as “jack-booted government thugs”). That was pretty much all anti-gun control advocate Alex Jones argued in his spectacular tirade a couple of weeks ago on Piers Morgan’s CNN show. This is at least the ostensible argument they make on this subject, so let's examine it more closely for a moment.
What they’re missing is this: guns will not – and have not – saved the American people from government repression. No, what has kept Americans safe from such a fate is something much more powerful and worthy of our preservation: the rule of law. And, given that the rule of law is established and maintained by people – citizens of good faith committed to a secure society – I think it’s fair to say that guns don’t protect people, people do.
Back in the early 1990s, as a staffer at a Jewish public policy organization in Washington, D.C., I was the lead organizer of a series of “vigils against gun violence,” an initiative hatched by a group of the city’s African American and Jewish leaders. Every week at lunchtime for several months, a few dozen of us would mill about for an hour in Scott Circle just across from the D.C. headquarters of the National Rifle Association, then on 16th Street, with placards and brochures (no blogs then) that expressed our outrage with flimsy laws that seemed to aid and abet gun violence locally and across the country. (Not long after, the NRA moved over the river many miles away into Virginia. Coincidence?)
In short order, I began to get letters and calls from a small, but strident Jewish anti-gun control group, whose representatives harangued me for my involvement in the demonstrations.
One of their articles of faith was (and still is) that European Jews could have prevented the Holocaust had there been no restrictions against gun ownership during the rise of the Nazis. Indeed, they still argue, gun control – or, as they would call it, “disarmament” – was a necessary precursor to nearly every genocide over the last hundred years or so. According to their thinking, another genocide against the Jews could even happen here, too, in the United States, so we must prepare by arming ourselves. Only a foolish Jew like me, with a poor understanding of history, they admonished, would have the bad judgment to support gun control laws in the U.S.
There are, of course, problems with the argument about Nazi Germany. For one, it’s counterfactual – a guess about what might have happened if history had taken different turns than it did – which most historians steadfastly discourage because it’s impossible prove that which did not occur. Indeed, using counterfactual reasoning, I can just as soundly argue that an armed insurrection of German Jews would have given the Nazis another pretext for rounding up all these enemies of the state and "eliminating" them somehow. But I don't really know that for sure, do I? And it’s hard to imagine that, even if every German Jew possessed and was inclined to use a firearm, they would have been able to overwhelm what became a powerfully armed Nazi police and military state.
More importantly, what made the Holocaust possible was not the absence of guns under every German Jewish bed but the disappearance of the rule of law.
Ironically enough, before the rise of the Third Reich, Germany was a society with a highly sophisticated body of laws. But by 1932, the German political system, still weakened by post-Great War provisions, was in chaos. The Nazis took advantage of the situation and won election to rule the country. In 1933, after staging a fire on the Reichstag, the nation’s parliament, the Nazis claimed that Germany was under attack by Communists and other “terrorists.” That gave them an excuse to impose a “temporary” emergency suspension of fundamental rights for Germans and to the transfer the powers of the democratically elected parliament into Hitler’s hands.
From that point on, “Hitler stood outside the legal constraints of the state apparatus whenever he perceived the need to adopt policies and make decisions that he deemed necessary for the survival of the German race,” as the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum explains it .“This extra-legal line of authority, known as the “Führer Executive” (Führerexekutiv) or the "Führer principle" (Führerprinzip) extended down through the ranks of the Nazi party, the SS, the state bureaucracy, and the armed forces. It allowed for agencies of the party, state, and armed forces to operate outside the law when necessary to achieve the ideological goals of the regime, while maintaining the fiction of adhering to legal norms.”
With that, almost nothing prevented the Nazis from steadily and thoroughly stripping rights from Jews and others the Reich considered enemies of the state and from arming itself as it did. Technically, the Nazis had the law, which they had hijacked, on their side. It was the people's acquisence early on during the Nazi rule that enabled the tyrants to prevail. It was people, not guns, that enabled the Nazis to come to power and later strip the Jews and other victims of their rights and lives.
As for the argument that it (a Holocaust) could happen here (in America), I say, of course. Anything is possible. But likely? Maybe this is whistling past the graveyard, but I doubt it, unless America undergoes an immediate and radical cultural transformation. To repeat a trite, but nonetheless true, notion, America is a nation that abides by the rule of law, not by the rule of one or a few people. People can complain that our laws and enforcement of laws is sometimes stifling and tedious. Our system is not without its drawbacks all the time and for everyone. But consider an America without such a tradition and practice. Our devotion to the large print of the Constitution and the fine print of the zillions of laws and regulations that sensible people have promulgated through tried and true procedure is what makes a “Holocaust” (against any people) so unlikely in America.
All that procedure we saw the other day as our President took his second Oath of Office was not just a show of pageantry to make “the people” and their leaders feel a lump of patriotism in their throats. It is a reminder that we have an agreed-upon set of rules that we all must follow, which, for the most part, Americans do. Obama, and every President before him, came to power through rule of law, something that the Nazis perverted, and a broken German political system failed to prevent, in the early '30s. And, in case that isn’t obvious enough, why do you think the Chief Justice of the United States, the primary steward of our laws, administers the Oath?
Rule of law is what has made America probably the most hospitable place for Jews outside the modern and ancient Jewish states. Rule of law, not chauvinistic chest pounding about U.S. superiority in the world, is what makes for its exceptionalism today and across the arc of history.
Government operated by rule of law is not a threat to our personal liberties, contrary to what some anti-gun control advocates and others seem to be saying. As President Obama said in his second inaugural speech, "(P)reserving our individual freedoms ultimately requires collective action.”
Someone who uses the gun to protect himself from such a government is not really upholding the great traditions of this land. He is taking the law into his own hands. He is bypassing the will of the people. He is performing a highly unpatriotic act.