Ben Carson Is Half-Right About Guns and the Holocaust

Ben Carson has upset everyone again:

Ben Carson said Thursday that Adolf Hitler’s mass murder of Jews “would have been greatly diminished” if German citizens had not been disarmed by the Nazi regime.

The comment, which came during an interview with CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, was similar to arguments Carson made following last week’s mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore., in which he defended the Second Amendment and suggested that the victims should have fought the gunman.

. . .

“I think the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed,” Carson said.

Blitzer pushed a bit more: “Because they had a powerful military machine, as you know, the Nazis.”

“I understand that,” Carson said. “I’m telling you that there is a reason that these dictatorial people take the guns first.”

Before getting into the details of this claim, I must confess to being unsure as to why the mere mention of this era offends people as keenly as it does. In his comments, Carson was presenting a counterfactual hypothesis. Maybe it’s a bad one and he’s wrong. Maybe it’s a good one and he’s right. But why the anger? If you don’t like his case — or you think it’s stupid — then explain why he’s incorrect. Don’t freak out just because he said the word “Nazi.” Godwin’s law exists to mock those who refer to the Third Reich when it doesn’t apply. It’s not a general prohibition on the discussion of Nazism.

Now, is Carson incorrect? Possibly, yes. It is true that the Nazi regime disarmed the Jews — and to the extent that it prohibited them from owning even knives. That fact, though, does not in and of itself mean that the Holocaust could have been prevented. Given what I know about the sentiments held by the population at large and about the remarkable efficiency of both the military and the police, it seems unlikely to me that any organized resistance could have prevailed — at least not to the extent that it could have overthrown the German state or facilitated the escape of millions of people. Unlike during the American revolution, there was no strong undercurrent of liberalism that undercut the efforts of the authorities, and, besides, many of those who were exterminated didn’t know what was happening to them until it was too late. In pockets there might have been stories of heroism and uprising, sure. In fact, there were. But Carson’s claim was “greatly diminished,” not just “diminished,” and it can therefore be judged on those grounds.

But here’s the thing: Whether Carson is right or wrong in his central claim is entirely irrelevant to the more important question here, which is not “can armed people always overthrow a tyrannical government” but “does the government get to deny them the chance to try?” The right to keep and bear arms is an individual right, not a collective privilege, and individual rights do not need to be justified on practical grounds. Just as we would not deny free speech to a man simply because he seemed unlikely to win a given argument, we must not abandon our auxiliary self-defense rights on the basis that the odds might be stacked against the little guy. I’m a staunch defender of the right to keep and bear arms because I have an untouchable Lockean right to protect myself, not because I can prove definitively that I will never be outgunned. Would I necessarily win in a fight against a home intruder? No, I would not. Would I necessarily survive if the government or the police wanted me dead? No, I would not. But I will assert my unalienable right to try against any man at any time in any place, and those who hope to strip me of that chance can man up, head to my front door, and come and damn well take it.

 

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