Law | Military, War, and Peace
Columbia Center for Contemporary Critical Thought
Say the words "gun registration" to many pro-gun Americans and you are likely to hear that one of the first things that Hitler did when he seized power was to impose strict gun registration requirements that enabled him to identify gun owners and then to confiscate all guns, effectively disarming his opponents and paving the way for the Holocaust. One of the more curious twists in the historical debate, though, is that the most vocal opponent of this argument is also pro-gun. It is the National Alliance, a white supremacist organization. According to them, "German Firearms legislation under Hitler, far from banning private ownership, actually facilitated the keeping and bearing of arms by German citizens by eliminating or ameliorating restrictive laws which had been enacted by the government preceding his." So which pro-gunner should we believe?
Following Germany's defeat in World War I, the Weimar Republic passed very strict gun control laws in an attempt both to stabilize the country and to comply with the Versailles Treaty of 1919 – laws that in fact required the surrender of all guns to the government. These laws remained in effect until 1928, when the German parliament relaxed gun restrictions and put into effect a strict firearm-licensing scheme. These strict licensing regulations foreshadowed Hitler's rise to power.
If you read the 1938 Nazi gun laws closely and compare them to earlier 1928 Weimar gun legislation – as a straightforward exercise of statutory interpretation – several conclusions become clear. First, with regard to possession and carrying of firearms, the Nazi regime relaxed the gun laws that were in place in Germany at the time the Nazis seized power. Second, the Nazi gun laws of 1938 specifically banned Jewish persons from obtaining a license to manufacture firearms or ammunition. Third, approximately eight months after enacting the 1938 Nazi gun laws, Hitler imposed regulations prohibiting Jewish persons from possessing any dangerous weapons, including firearms.
The difficult question is how to characterize the Nazi treatment of the Jewish population for purposes of evaluating Hitler's position on gun control. Truth is, the question itself is absurd. The Nazis sought to disarm and kill the Jewish population. Their treatment of Jews is, in this sense, orthogonal to their gun-control views. Nevertheless, if forced to take a position, it seems that the Nazis aspired to a certain relaxation of gun registration laws for the "law-abiding German citizen" – for those who were not, in their minds, "enemies of the National Socialist state," in other words, Jews, Communists, etc.
Here, then, is the best tentative and bizarre conclusion: Some of the pro-gunners are probably right, the Nazi-gun-registration argument is probably wrong. What is clear, though, is that the history of Weimar and Nazi gun laws has not received enough critical attention by historians. What we really need now is more historical research and reliable scholarship.
Bernard E. Harcourt,
On Gun Registration, the NRA, Adolf Hitler, and Nazi Gun Laws: Exploding the Gun Culture Wars,
Fordham Law Review, Vol. 73, p. 653, 2004; U of Chicago Public Law Working Paper No. 67
Available at: https://scholarship.law.columbia.edu/faculty_scholarship/1327