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Ben Carson's far from the only conservative saying gun control caused the Holocaust

Ben Carson.
Ben Carson.
Astrid Stawiarz/Getty Images

Ben Carson, former pediatric neurosurgeon and Donald Trump's main competition in national Republican primary polls, was challenged this week by CNN's Wolf Blitzer to defend the view expressed in his book A More Perfect Union that gun control led to the Holocaust.

Here's the passage Blitzer asked him about:

German citizens were disarmed by their government in the late 1930s, and by the mid-1940s Hitler's regime had mercilessly slaughtered six million Jews and numerous others whom they considered inferior ... Through a combination of removing guns and disseminating deceitful propaganda, the Nazis were able to carry out their evil intentions with relatively little resistance.

Under pressure, Carson reiterated: "I think the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed."

Ben Carson's Holocaust history is garbage

Absolutely everything Carson has to say about this is wrong.

  • The German public was disarmed in 1919 at the behest of England, France, and the United States. A provision of the Treaty of Versailles severely limited private firearm ownership in Germany as part of an effort to reduce Germany's ability to re-arm itself.
  • In 1938, the Nazi regime substantially rescinded these regulations as part of its general casting-off of the onerous limitations Versailles imposed on Germany as a result of its defeat in World War I.
  • Relatively few of the 6 million Jews slaughtered during the Holocaust were citizens of prewar Germany anyway — most came from Poland, the Soviet Union, and other conquered territories in Eastern and Central Europe.
  • The Nazi regime managed to conquer all of France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, and Poland plus huge swaths of the Soviet Union and northern Africa in the face of determined resistance by militaries equipped with not just with handguns but also tanks, warships, airplanes, and other heavy weapons.
  • The Nazis in fact faced meaningful armed opposition from Jewish partisan groups who, like non-Jewish partisan groups, hampered the Nazi war effort.

Of course, lots of people aren't going to be familiar with the specific factual details of gun control in the 1930s. But the striking thing about this argument is that it's transparently dumb. The average American knows only one fact about world history, and it's that Adolf Hitler was involved in a very large war and that assembling a military force big enough to defeat his was a difficult and time-consuming process that obviously could not have been undertaken by a handful of amateurs with light guns.

So where did Carson get this idea? Well, he got it from the same place Carson fans get a lot of their information — conservative media.

Conservative media believes gun control caused Hitler

Here's how the Drudge Report covered President Obama's gun control proposals from 2013:

At the time, this image shocked and outraged many liberals much as Carson's remarks have two years later. But as Alex Seitz-Wald wrote at the time, this fake history has become conventional wisdom on the right and "the NRA, Fox News, Fox News (again), Alex Jones, email chains, Joe 'the Plumber' Wurzelbacher, Gun Owners of America, etc., all agree that gun control was critical to Hitler’s rise to power."

The origin of a ridiculous talking point

In a 2012 Tablet article, Michael Moynihan traced the origins of the meme to a 1983 debate over a proposed total ban on handgun ownership in Chicago, where a version of the argument was deployed in the heavily Jewish suburb of Skokie. According to the Chicago Tribune, "Opponents of a proposed handgun ban, mindful of Skokie’s large Jewish population, are reminding village residents that the Nazis disarmed the Jews as a preliminary to sending them to the gas chambers during World War II."

In 1989, a Jewish gun enthusiast named Aaron Zelman living nearby in Chicago founded an organization called Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, which runs a brisk business selling merch on the Hitler/guns theme.

JPFO does not appear to be in any way politically influential, but as Gavin Aronsen wrote for Mother Jones in 2013, Zelman did deliver a 1994 talk to the board of the National Rifle Association urging the NRA to emphasize the link. And it appears to have worked, since in his 1994 book NRA President Wayne LaPierre wrote that "in Germany, firearm registration helped lead to the Holocaust" because it left citizens "defenseless against tyranny and the wanton slaughter of a whole segment of its population."

LaPierre's book simultaneously made the shift from tendentious historical factoid (Germany had strict gun control laws) to completely bogus causal argument (Hitler was able to achieve the Holocaust because the population was disarmed) while simultaneously moving the locus of the argument from a small niche (Midwestern Jewish gun enthusiast) to the national audience of conservative gun activists.

The argument doesn't pass cursory scrutiny — Hitler conquered Europe with sophisticated combined arms operations that were able to defeat large, properly trained and equipped armies, and a few more small arms in the hands of a few more Jewish civilians clearly wouldn't have made a difference. But once endorsed by LaPierre it seems to have become conservative conventional wisdom, and now via Carson is receiving mainstream scrutiny.

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