David R. Henderson  

Does Gun Control Work? Ben Carson Says Yes. ADL Says No but Yes

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"The likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed," he told CNN on Thursday.
This is from a BBC report titled "Ben Carson defends linking gun control to the Holocaust."

What would Carson's argument be? I think it's clear from context. Incentives work. Incentives affect behavior. Once the word got out that Jews were being hauled off to death camps, the Germans doing the hauling would have had to think twice before going after Jews in their homes if they had known that Jews were armed. But Hitler's gun control law of 1938, along with earlier gun control dating from 1928, left most Jews unarmed. Legal scholar Stephen P. Holbrook has written about this at length. In "Nazi Firearms Law and the Disarming of the German Jews," he tells about Hitler's systematic, and unfortunately successful, efforts to disarm German Jews.

But the Anti-Defamation League quickly replied:

Ben Carson has a right to his views on gun control, but the notion that Hitler's gun-control policy contributed to the Holocaust is historically inaccurate. The small number of personal firearms available to Germany's Jews in 1938 could in no way have stopped the totalitarian power of the Nazi German state.

Notice two things about that statement:

1. In the last part, the ADL changes the subject. Carson was not claiming that had Jews been more armed they would "have stopped the totalitarian power of the Nazi German state." That's a tall order. He was, instead, saying "The likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed." I took that to mean that Hitler would have had a tougher time achieving this particular goal--murdering German Jews--not that, had Jews been more armed, he would not have used the totalitarian state for many of the other evils he committed.

2. It's not even clear that the ADL disagrees. Read the second sentence above again:

The small number of personal firearms available to Germany's Jews in 1938 could in no way have stopped the totalitarian power of the Nazi German state.

Notice its emphasis on "the small number of personal firearms" owned by Germany's Jews. The ADL seems to think that the number of firearms matters. Fewer firearms: less resistance. More firearms: more resistance. That's what Carson is saying. And one main cause of lack of firearms was Hitler's gun control.

Quick summary of ADL's statement.

UPDATE: Friends who know the issue better me agree that incentives matter but that they wouldn't have mattered much. So I won't defend Carson's statement. I will defend this statement (of mine): "Some of the Jews who were murdered by Hitler would not have been murdered if not for Germany's control laws. I am confident that the number saved would have been more than zero but probably would have been less than 10,000. But, hey, if 1,000 lives had been saved, that would have been a good thing. They've made movies about such numbers."

Also see this.

HT to Charley Hooper.


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CATEGORIES: Incentives




COMMENTS (26 to date)
Colombo writes:

My impression is that most people think, but don't say, that armed resistance against Government is always wrong, regardless of the Government.

They like MLK and Gandhi, but that is probably because they were somewhat socialists and didn't use weapons. I guess the PC fanatics think Spartacus was rightly murdered by the Romans, for the hideous crime of emancipation. If Kirk Douglas was black they would understand.

Andrew_FL writes:

I will defend Carson's statement. In terms of saying that incentives matter, but not as much as he's making things sound, remember that what Carson actually said was "The likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed,". That, if you think about it, is a different statement from "if the people had not been disarmed. "If the people had been armed" covers everything from the government not taking existing guns from anybody all the way up to a hypothetical in which all the people are armed. ADL's point that the number of firearms the German people would likely have possessed is not relevant, it's interrogating the hypothetical.

If someone tried what Hitler tried, in a country in which people were as heavily armed as they are on average in the United States, without taking their guns first, it would have been a lot more difficult. Could the German Jews have been that heavily armed, realistically? Probably not. That's not the point. The American people are, and that represents a real obstacle to any would be mass murdering despot in the United States.

roystgnr writes:

I think Kevin Drum's take on the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was the most dumbfounding. "1000 armed Jews fought 2000 Nazis and lost, therefore there should have been fewer people fighting Nazis", said nobody intelligent ever. "Therefore the other 50,000 Jews should have been armed too" just never occurred to him?

Pajser writes:

"Some of the Jews who were murdered by Hitler would not have been murdered if not for Germany's control laws. "

Maybe. But if Nazis needed gun control laws, they would make them. It makes hypothesis less interesting. You can technically change it into more interesting hypothesis:

"Some of the Jews ... had not been murdered because they (illegally) had guns."

But, the Jews had an option that meant almost certain survival - to migrate to distant country early. If privately owned guns increased the chance of survival in Germany, the incentives of gun owners to leave the country were reduced. It is possible (I think, likely) that gun ownership among Jews actually increased the number of murdered Jews.

michael pettengill writes:

Given most Germans actively or passively supported Hitler, much like Putin has increased his popular support even as he has made life harder for most Russians, if every Jew who remained in Germany had guns, I think the only difference would have been the number of Germans killed killing the Jews and many others, and where they were killed.

Certainly, 200,000 German Jews killed in a conflict involving 50,000 guns would have been reported widely alerting the world to Hitler's intent to kill Jews, but that would hardly have been much of a problem for Hitler.

Whether Hitler would have found Poland a more problematic conquest, or even whether Stalin would have agreed to split Poland with Hitler is a more interesting question. Given family size, how many more Polish Jews would have been in the resistance, the Polish army, and the Soviet army.

I think more guns might not have stopped Hitler, but slowed what Hitler was able to do, keeping him busy killing Jews the hard way in Poland, and maybe he was killed by assassination and Nazi Germany held all of Europe after suing for peace, Einstein never convinced FDR to build bombs, the US never enters the European war but defeats Japan in alliance with Stalin the hard way.

Thus no cold war. No US superpower.

But Hitler still chalks up millions of Jews toward his final solution.

ThomasH writes:

I do not think we can speculate on the outcome of a specific change in the laws of Germany in the 30's. Maybe the image of some "heroic" SS officer "gunned down" by a "vicious Jew" would have led to a quicker and even more deadly Holocaust.

I think that is is pretty despicable for Carson to try to use the Holocaust for his political advantage. Moreover, he has apparently not learned the first rule of digital communication: the first one to bring up Hitler looses.

And it does nothing to advance a discussion of exactly how firearms should be regulated in the US in 2015.

Nathan W writes:

Hitler took control with propaganda and a spy state, not violence.

Violence of any appreciable level didn't come until basically everyone was on side.

Universal gun ownership in Nazi Germany would not have stopped Hitler, but perhaps there might have been a few more thousand Allied casualties as they progressed through the German countryside.

Jews were picked off one a time from their homes. At best, universal gun ownership among Jews would have resulted in a handful of police casualties. Of course, if they (Jews) had orchestrated an armed revolution thanks to their guns, this would have offered the Nazis every pretext in the world to kill every member of the resistance without even needing to make any excuses for it.

Freedom of the press (backed up with strong protection for whistleblowers and easy application of Freedom of Information laws), strong social sanction against hate speech, and a refusal to give into mission creep by secret services, could prevent the next Hitler. But Americans are completely deluded if they think that even universal ownership pistols or even assault rifles will save them from a hypothetical future tyranny: anyone who takes arms against the government will get dead or imprisoned for life.

Anyways, in my opinion this is a silly debate. I don't direct this at Henderson, but the discussion at present is intended (at least by some) to play to irrational fears that Obama will take their guns away and become a tyrant, whereas all he has suggested is to close some loopholes which allow some people to avoid background checks when buying guns. No one is trying to take your guns away.

JK Brown writes:
[T]he right to bear arms is inherent under English ideas, and this alone, with the corresponding right of political assembly, has served largely to maintain English liberty; while the absence of these two important rights has relieved countries like Russia from all fear of revolution.

One has only to read Mr. George Trevelyan's vivid account of the difficulties of the Garibaldi movement to free Italy in 1860, to realize the enormous difficulties under which the great patriot labored from the absence of these underlying principles. Indeed, but for the connivance of the Piedmontese government in allowing somebody to sell a thousand condemned rifles, it is probable that there would have been no revolution in Sicily.


-- F.J. Stimson, 1910


The rifle is a weapon. Let there be no mistake about that. It is a tool of power, and thus dependent completely upon the moral stature of its user. It is equally useful in securing meat for the table, destroying group of enemies on the battlefield, and resisting tyranny. In fact, it is the only means of resisting tyranny, because a citizenry armed with rifles simply cannot be tyrannized.

--The Art of the Rifle, Jeff Cooper, 1997


Not only can government forces be harassed by an armed populace, but as is the favored argument that the "police" will kill/imprison if they desire forgets that such arrests and slaughters will happen right down the street from the "law abiding" populace. If the "law abiding" decide such raids and killings are not legitimate, the government loses legitimacy. Yes, murderous regimes can hold power, see the Communist Bloc of the 20th century, but increasingly the world's population is expecting a "say" via democracy. So increasingly, terror is less of a long term plan for tyranny without provoking popular support for armed resisters.

aby writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the webmaster@econlib.org to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Andrew M writes:

I think some people are not considering the most plausible causal pathway through which an armed populace might have stopped Hitler's regime. That pathway involves the elusive phenomenon of political legitimacy. A totalitarian regime does not need legitimacy among the masses, whom it can terrorize into acquiescence with its military. But it does need legitimacy among its military, because members of the military are the wielders of overwhelming force. Now it is one thing for the military to threaten to fire on civilians, and occasionally to do so. It is quite another for it to launch a full scale attack against civilians, with their slaughter the result. A military willing to do the former might be unwilling to do the latter. And this is where an armed populace might--I say might--come in: it might raise the cost to soldiers of waging outright war against the civilian population by just enough to make them refuse to do so. Of course the army would win if it launched a full-on military attack against the civilian population. But it could not launch such an attack if a critical mass of soldiers simply refused to play along; and a critical mass of soldiers might refuse to do so if they were somewhat ambivalent participants in the totalitarian regime to begin with but then faced a real risk of death because the civilian population was armed (and perhaps desperate). In this way, an armed populace might be able to stop a totalitarian regime in its tracks without being able to defeat the regime's military by force of arms, something it obviously could not do.

ThomasH writes:

Any sensible mass murdering despot would first enlist the allegiance of the gun owners to help carry out the mass murder.

mico writes:

Ghetto uprisings actually happened, most famously in Warsaw. The Warsaw ghetto didn't succeed in defeating the German army but it did pin down several thousand German troops. Would another dozen such uprisings, even if they were all suppressed, have been irrelevant to the course of the war?

Anyway, I find the ADL's argument a little specious. Gun bans were a symptom of wider oppression even if they weren't the main enabler. It is likely that press freedom in Nazi Germany wouldn't have overcome the Nazis' control of the police and army, and millions of paramilitaries, either, but that doesn't mean that press freedom was a basically irrelevant issue that should be ignored in assessing the regime or trying to prevent a repeat of it in the future.

"Any sensible mass murdering despot would first enlist the allegiance of the gun owners to help carry out the mass murder."

Are you saying that if German Jews had been armed, Hitler would have been philo-semitic?

Question for historians: What kind of gun-control laws did Poland have in 1939?

Nick writes:
I am confident that the number saved would have been more than zero but probably would have been less than 10,000.

Let's take seriously the claim that incentives mattered here. You've identified one direction incentives mattered -- the German police would have 'thought twice' before arresting Jews, because they would have believed that the Jews they were going to arrest would shoot at them. To complete this, I imagine the argument is that the Jews in question would have used the extra time that this hesitation on the part of the police produced to escape.

You're very confident that this would have saved lives, I admire your certainty, personally, I haven't a clue if this is remotely realistic. So, in the style of the great Chicago economists like Sam Peltzman, let me suggest that in addition to this channel you've identified, there is another incentive effect pushing in the opposite direction, namely, that many specific instances of Nazi aggression against Jews were sparked by violence, for example, the Kristallnacht pogroms followed the shooting of the German ambassador to France by a Jew. A heavily armed Jewish population would have, through this channel, caused more mistrust and hatred, leading to more and earlier deaths. Possible the Nazi party would have used Jewish violence as an international justification for greater persecution.

What effect would this have had on deaths? Would it have been 0? 500 more deaths? 10000? I certainly don't pretend to know the answer. I do think it's insulting and counterproductive to link proponents of gun control to the Holocaust, based on the flimsiest of reasoning.

Pajser writes:

There is the other side: bad guys with guns. Hypothetically, USA with 30% fascists, organized in SA-like forces of 25-30 millions, waiting for a command. Who could stop them? 70% majority, maybe - if it is equally organized, which is not logical necessity (or even likely), and only for the price of civil war.

Cameron writes:

Maybe Carson is talking about prudence.

It behooves citizens of democratic states to get information on how their state is managed. If citizens were providing active oversight of their (big?) government, they would also be able to provide 'feedback' in the form of active resistance and revolt.

Now, I want to be clear here - Carson is wrong. But so too is the notion that possession of guns has ever checked the power of the state.

Carson is wrong because Jews in Germany represented 0.75% of the population. Exclude the old, sick and children and we are probably getting (at best) to 0.5%. And what about knowing how to use those guns? It's hard to believe that this minute part of the population would 'greatly diminish Hitler's goals'.

But the other side to this debate (and a component of the 2nd Amendment) is the idea that armed citizens can/should resist and reboot the state violently. Is this a reality in America? Or anywhere else in the democratic world? Would that be the kind of society we'd want to live it?


Andreas Meyer writes:

Apparently nobody takes the effort to have a look what Germany's gun laws really were. Hitler actually made it easier for people to purchase and own guns. Laws didn't prevent Jews from owning guns, they just prohibited Jews becoming gun manufacturers. Most Jews in Europe lived outside Germany anyway, where Hitler had no legislative power. While Carson's assumptions are false, the logic still makes sense.

Jon Gunnarsson writes:

@michael pettengill:
By the time the Holocaust began (1941), Poland had long been conquered.

Mike W writes:

Godwin's Law...Carson, and defenders of his comment, have lost the debate.

Peter Gordon writes:

Do not underestimate the importance of Jew-killing for the Nazis. It continued even while they were losing the war very badly -- almost until Soviet forces were inside the Reichstag.

David R. Henderson writes:

@Andreas Meyer,
Apparently nobody takes the effort to have a look what Germany's gun laws really were. Hitler actually made it easier for people to purchase and own guns.
The group of people who didn’t take that effort includes you, Andreas. I linked to the Law Review article on this for a reason.
@Mike W,
Godwin's Law...Carson, and defenders of his comment, have lost the debate.
If the debate is over what Hitler did, which is what Stephen Halbrook, Ben Carson, and I are talking about, you can’t automatically lose a debate by talking about Hitler.

David writes:

1) On Carson: he's wrong. As Halbrook shows, "the people" were armed. Hitler and the Nazis were clearly not anti-gun. Otherwise they wouldn't have liberalized firearm laws for non-Jewish, German citizens by reducing the age when someone could buy a gun or adding more exemptions to the permit requirement. So the lack of firearms among the non-Jewish, German people was not the reason Hitler was not stopped.

2) If "the people" Carson is referring to are the Jewish citizens of Germany, Halbrook's article also shows that instances of armed resistance by foreign Jews were used to further disarm Jewish Germans. The cases of David Frankfurter and Herschel Grynszpan prove that.

As for Jews who refused to comply with the Nazi disarmament campaign, the S.A. were told "in the event of resistance they are to be shot immediately." So even when the Jews were armed, the Nazis were not afraid of them because they were authorized to kill them on the spot.

3) In Denmark, the Danes solidarity with Jews as countrymen saved more of them from Nazi persecution than armed Jews in collaborating countries did. The acquiescence of the German people and other Europeans doomed the Jews, not the lack of firearms.

http://www.newrepublic.com/article/115670/denmark-holocaust-bo-lidegaards-countrymen-reviewed

[edited with commenter's permission--Econlib Ed.]

foosion writes:

It's quite possible armed resistance would have provoked an even more massive response. Germany had a well equipped army (tanks, artillery, automatic weapons, etc., etc.) and air force, which would seem able to overwhelm a bunch of individuals with guns.

Jay writes:

@ David R. Henderson

If the debate is over what Hitler did, which is what Stephen Halbrook, Ben Carson, and I are talking about, you can’t automatically lose a debate by talking about Hitler.

As long as the crawler on CNN says "Carson compares gun control to Nazi's" it doesn't matter what he meant or the substance of his argument, the debate's already over. You'll just see a stream of pundits (and commentor's above) saying how shameful it is to use Nazi's to make a policy point and how there's no way a couple armed Jews could have brought down the Third Reich as if that's what he said.

Yes he could have phrased it better and he may have exaggerated the odds the Jews faced, even armed, but what you don't hear is the addressing of his much larger point of the people having the right to defend themselves no matter what the odds are.

Jack PQ writes:

Thoughts:
(1.) There are people who think that any appeal to Hitler or Nazis automatically disqualifies the speaker and his or her argument. That's rather strong, but not unfair. There are always better ways to frame an argument, I think.

(2.) It is a good illustration of the *existence* of an effect vs. *magnitude* of the effect. We should all agree the effect would exist. Whether it would be large enough to matter is debatable. Not unlike minimum wages.

(3.) It's also a good example of partial equilibrium thinking vs general equilibrium thinking. One might argue that with a lot more guns around, ceteris paribus does not hold.

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