The French came closer to having a Second Amendment than one might imagine. Indeed, they could have had one more clearly written than ours: Just a month after the storming of the Bastille in 1789, a draft of the Declaration of Rights stated that “every citizen has the right to keep arms at home and to use them, either for the common defense or for his own defense, against any unlawful attack which may endanger the life, limb, or freedom of one or more citizens.”
Alas, it was not to be. That provision did not make it into the final document, though a vague right to “resistance of oppression” did.
Renowned Second Amendment lawyer Stephen Halbrook detailed this history in a 2012 article for the Fordham Urban Law Journal. And now, in his book Gun Control in Nazi-Occupied France, he explains how French gun policy evolved over the centuries — and the consequences it had under the Nazi-puppet Vichy regime during World War II. A sequel of sorts to Halbrook’s Gun Control in the Third Reich, the book drives home the important lessons that gun control is a key element of the oppressor’s toolkit, that guns are incredibly useful for those resisting oppression, and that even the most draconian gun-control measures are far from perfectly effective.
It cannot prove, of course — and doesn’t purport to — that a stronger French tradition of gun rights could have radically altered history, or that America’s more libertarian gun policies strike the right balance among all the relevant priorities. What it does do is force readers to entertain a simple question: When a hostile and brutal power takes over, do you want your countrymen to have guns at hand, or not? Certainly this question weighed heavily upon the minds of the American Founders, and certainly its answer counts for something.
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Going into World War II, the French citizenry was not particularly well-armed. An 1834 law had banned “war” weapons, essentially restricting civilians to shotguns, hunting-caliber rifles, and some handguns. In 1935, amid violent political upheaval, the government required the registration of non-hunting guns. Meanwhile, a French hunting organization estimated that there were about 3 million hunting guns in the country in 1939, when its population was something like 40 million.
Germany occupied the northern half and Atlantic coast of France in 1940, making short work of the French armed forces and taking 2 million soldiers prisoner in the resulting armistice. In France as elsewhere, the Nazis made it a priority to disarm the population when they arrived, hanging signs threatening harsh punishment — up to and including the death penalty — for those who refused to turn in their guns.
The Nazis didn’t administer the occupied territory by themselves; they set up a nominally French government based out of Vichy in the unoccupied “free zone,” believing that it would be easier to gain compliance if French authorities, including police forces allowed to go about their business armed, helped to carry out German wishes. Collaboration also meant that authorities had easy access to any gun-registration records the French had collected since the 1935 decree.
Death sentences for mere weapons possession were virtually unheard-of — at first. Things became far worse over the next two years, with executions of gun owners by firing squad ramping up in late 1941. French Jews were rounded up and sent to concentration camps starting the next year; the German occupation then expanded into the southern half of France. French men ages 18 to 20 were ordered to work camps in early 1943, and some fled to the mountains.
As German atrocities built, so did the French Resistance. It had begun with underground publications and the occasional act of violence (often counterproductive given that the Germans would have French hostages executed in retaliation), but it increasingly conducted sabotage operations and sought out weapons. The various branches of the effort unified in May of 1943.
Resistance members carried handguns for their own safety and went to great lengths to acquire whatever arms they could in preparation for a future assault, from hunting guns that had not been surrendered to confiscated firearms stored at depots to weaponry parachuted to them by Allied forces to arms captured from ambushed German soldiers. Gun Control in Nazi-Occupied France is at its most vivid in describing these developments, as Halbrook solicited the recollections of Resistance veterans in the late 1990s and early 2000s and allows them to tell their stories.
Halbrook acknowledges that there’s a bit of a paradox to reckon with. If there really were 3 million hunting guns in France before the war, the confiscation regime was astonishingly ineffective, netting only about 800,000 weapons (though some guns were ditched through non-official channels, including the waterways of Paris, rather than kept illegally). His correspondents report that it was common to hide guns rather than turning them in, and German authorities fretted about widespread noncompliance, trying everything from executions to amnesties in response. A report in late 1941 contended that “illegal weapons possession still represents the core of criminal activities of the French. It appears almost impossible to get rid of it.”
And yet the Resistance struggled mightily to find arms. One of the movement’s biggest complaints was that the Allies were failing to supply them enough. And even so, one of Halbrook’s interviewees estimated that 85 percent of the group’s guns came from airdrops, with just 15 percent being guns that civilians brought themselves, often without ammunition.
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One needn’t accept every last pro-gun talking point to admit that an armed population is incredibly valuable in times of hostile occupation. This point was not lost on Americans at the time: In 1941, Congress enacted a law allowing the president to requisition property in certain circumstances, but it specifically exempted guns and reiterated the importance of an individual right to bear arms. A sponsor of the law even noted how valuable gun control had been to Hitler and Stalin. The next year, the NRA’s magazine noted “what an aid and comfort to the invaders and to their Fifth Column cohorts have been the convenient registration lists of privately owned firearms — lists readily available for the copying or stealing at the Town Hall in most European cities.”
As for the French, “frontal armed resistance against the heavily armed and experienced Wehrmacht and Waffen-SS would have been suicide,” Halbrook concedes. But “guerrilla warfare would have been more of an option with better arms, particularly after D-Day.” The Resistance fought valiantly and helped to liberate Paris and win the war. But it was hamstrung by a lack of equipment — equipment that would have been easier to come by were it not for the 1834 ban on the civilian ownership of “war” weapons and the 1935 registration of non-hunting guns.
Gun control is not inherently a tool of oppression, but it is certainly useful to oppressors. And those who scoff at the notion that civilian gun owners can aid the fight against tyranny would do well to consider the evidence that Halbrook has marshalled here.
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