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Gun control

Alexander M. Martin | Wednesday, October 6, 2010

In Monday’s Observer (“My cold dead hands”, Oct.4), Mr. Kyle Retzloff writes that Nazi Germany’s alleged confiscation of private weapons is proof that an armed citizenry can act as a check on tyranny. This is a claim one often hears from pro-gun commentators. The history of armed citizens in modern politics is indeed instructive, but not as Mr. Retzloff suggests.

Armed resistance by isolated individuals is pointless, because a modern state easily crushes such opposition. It happens in our own country with awful regularity: a gunman holes himself up; the police lay siege; the gunman dies. All that, without the government having to deploy a single one of its tanks, fighter bombers, or attack helicopters.

Of course, individuals can band together. Guerrilla forces sometimes wear out the patience of foreign invaders, but not a determined government. Nazi Germany occupied most of Europe during World War II. Most countries produced heroic resistance fighters, but to the Germans they were little more than a nuisance; defeating Hitler’s army took the full force of the Allied armies, not bands of armed citizens. After World War II, Ukrainian guerrillas fought on against the Soviets; they too were crushed, because a band of citizens is no match for an army.

There is one exception: armed citizen “resistance” can indeed go far if the police and the army don’t defend the government. The German army watched from the sidelines as Hitler’s brown-shirted storm troopers (the SA) caused mayhem in the streets and destroyed German democracy. Mussolini made himself dictator by using his black-shirted *squadre* to bully the government and murder the opposition while the army looked on. The Bolsheviks came to power in Russia when the army was to much in disarray to stop a coup by the Red Guards. The drug gangs presently terrorizing Mexico illustrate the same point about the power of armed “citizens” to fight their government and bring fear and misery to their people.

And the guns that Hitler is supposed to have taken away from the German people? As best I can tell, this story refers to the confiscation in 1933 of weapons from former Communist and Socialist militiamen. The Nazis’ own militia, the SA, of course kept their guns. Then, in 1934, Hitler had the entire SA leadership butchered. Even a heavily armed militia, it turned out, was helpless against the dictator.

There are valid arguments for and against gun control. However, to imagine private gun owners standing up to totalitarianism is pure fantasy.


Alexander M. Martin


Associate Professor of Modern European History

Oct. 4