Saturday, January 12, 2013

Godwin And Gun Control

The Urban Dictionary is as good a source as any to explain Godwin’s Law:
1.            Godwin’s Law
A term that originated on Usenet, Godwin’s Law states that as an online argument grows longer and more heated, it becomes increasingly likely that somebody will bring up Adolf Hitler or the Nazis. When such an event occurs, the person guilty of invoking Godwin's Law has effectively forfeited the argument.
2.            Godwin’s Law
Usenet. There is a tradition in many groups that, once this occurs, that thread is over, and whoever mentioned the Nazis has automatically lost whatever argument was in progress.
There’s an obvious reason for Godwin’s Law. It’s because in the annals of evil, Hitler’s brutal regime, the Holocaust, World War II, all these things were, as we lawyers like to say, sui generis. They are in a class by themselves, depravity-wise. Not to mention death-and-human-suffering-wise. So, casual comparisons of things you don’t like, especially government policies you don’t like, to, say, the Holocaust, or to Hitler’s reign of terror, tend to exaggerate the severity of the things you don’t like, and, worse, to trivialize the actual horror of, say, the Holocaust or Hitler’s reign of terror.
This is why it always irritates me when opponents of gun control – or, as I prefer to call it, firearms safety regulations – rely on the old trope that gun control is evil because Hitler banned guns. The argument ordinarily takes one of two tacks: That Hitler seized the German people’s guns in order to keep them in a state of oppression, or that if the Jews had guns they could have prevented the Holocaust.
In a word: Godwin, and Godwin.
Of course, it’s particularly inane to compare American gun laws to whatever Hitler may or may not have done in light of the Supreme Court’s recent Second Amendment decisions holding that we do, in fact, have an individual right to keep and bear certain kinds of firearms. That the Court reaffirmed the government’s power to outlaw heavy-duty, military-grade weaponry doesn’t alter the fact that the government can’t come and seize your handguns and hunting rifles, at the very least.
More than that, it’s absurd to compare reasonable firearms safety regulations – including laws that would outlaw or severely limit access to military-style automatic rifles and the like – to, you know, Hitler. As Jon Stewart said the other day:
Now I see what’s happening. So this is what it is. Their paranoid fear of a possible dystopic future prevents us from addressing our actual dystopic present.
Word, as the kids say.
But the absurdity of the Hitler comparison is not the only reason why it’s offensive. It’s also offensive because it’s flat-out wrong. At, Alex Seitz-Wald explains:
University of Chicago law professor Bernard Harcourt explored this myth in depth in a 2004 article published in the Fordham Law Review. As it turns out, the Weimar Republic, the German government that immediately preceded Hitler’s, actually had tougher gun laws than the Nazi regime. After its defeat in World War I, and agreeing to the harsh surrender terms laid out in the Treaty of Versailles, the German legislature in 1919 passed a law that effectively banned all private firearm possession, leading the government to confiscate guns already in circulation. In 1928, the Reichstag relaxed the regulation a bit, but put in place a strict registration regime that required citizens to acquire separate permits to own guns, sell them or carry them.
The 1938 law signed by Hitler that [NRA chairman Wayne] LaPierre mentions in his book basically does the opposite of what he says it did. “The 1938 revisions completely deregulated the acquisition and transfer of rifles and shotguns, as well as ammunition,” Harcourt wrote. Meanwhile, many more categories of people, including Nazi party members, were exempted from gun ownership regulations altogether, while the legal age of purchase was lowered from 20 to 18, and permit lengths were extended from one year to three years.
The law did prohibit Jews and other persecuted classes from owning guns, but this should not be an indictment of gun control in general. Does the fact that Nazis forced Jews into horrendous ghettos indict urban planning? Should we eliminate all police officers because the Nazis used police officers to oppress and kill the Jews? …
Besides, Omer Bartov, a historian at Brown University who studies the Third Reich, notes that the Jews probably wouldn’t have had much success fighting back. “Just imagine the Jews of Germany exercising the right to bear arms and fighting the SA, SS and the Wehrmacht. The [Russian] Red Army lost 7 million men fighting the Wehrmacht, despite its tanks and planes and artillery. The Jews with pistols and shotguns would have done better?” he told Salon.
Indeed, the whole idea that Hitler needed a disarmed citizenry to remain in power – or that an armed Jewish community could have prevented the Holocaust – never made sense, because both ideas are premised on the notion that Hitler imposed himself on Germany against Germany’s will, and that the German people would have overthrown Hitler if they only had the means to do so. If you think that’s the case, you need to read a history book or two. Like, for example, William Sheridan Allen’s Nazi Seizure Of Power: The Experiences of Single German Town, 1922-1945. Because if you read actual history books on the subject, you’ll learn that the Nazis came to power in large part through a very successful grass roots campaign that won them elections. Yes, of course, they used violence and intimidation; but they also used the power of persuasion. The Nazis concentrated their early efforts on small, rural towns, appealing to townspeople’s religion and nationalism, and, yes, anti-Semitism, winning city council races and mayoral races and, eventually, seats in the Reichstag.
In other words, a very large segment of the German population supported Hitler. Armed or not. They wanted him.
And as for the Holocaust? Well, many Germans wanted that, too. Or simply looked the other way. But the idea that a relatively small, insular minority could have fought off being rounded up and placed in camps against an enormously powerful state security apparatus and a German populace that either supported it or just didn’t care … that’s nuts.
Look, whether you call it gun control or firearms safety regulations, it’s complicated. I’m not suggesting the issue is simple, or that it’s one-sided. But come on, son. If you think you can win the argument by falsely asserting that Hitler banned guns or that gun control led to the Holocaust, you need to take all the damn seats. All the damn seats.


  1. If not speaking their mind when they are full of shit had anything to do with the way the SKKKrotalMurKKKinPatriotiKKK front operates, well, then maybe...

  2. On our European cruise this summer we had the chance to take the "World War II" tour of Nuremburg, which included a trip to the Zeppelin Field where all the rallies happened, and not enough time to visit the Documentation Center (in the remains of Hitler's unfinished Congress Hall). We had about an hour to go through the exhibits and we could have used a full day. For a student of World War II it's probably worth a special trip to Nuremburg to see this place. It has everything, from the very beginnings.

    I never really grasped until looking at those exhibits what a master of persuasion Hitler was. He sold National Socialism like soap; in fact, he used the same marketing techniques. He was a tremendously persuasive and charismatic speaker and he was telling the Germans exactly what they wanted to hear. The marketing campaign for the Nazi cause was superb. I'm not at all surprised to read the account of his gun policies; of course he wanted "his people" to have guns. He intended to conquer the world.