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The Thin Edge of the Wedge

The history of empires has often hinged on seemingly little, insignificant actions. Befogged by the maelstrom of events happening at the moment, those most affected by such actions failed to see the future applications and implications of those actions. In hindsight, however, historians and others can discern what was about to happen to the people of the past. They cannot warn them, however; history is unalterable. But they can use those lessons to warn their own generation.

Such was the case in German following World War I. Weak, vacillating, uncertain men ran the Weimar Republic. Their weaknesses propagated unrest that erupted in violence, not spontaneous, self-generated violence but a violence intentionally agitated for and instigated by those who hoped to benefit from the unstable conditions. From this environment arose the National Socialist German Workers Party, better known as the Nazis.

I’ve done quite a bit of reading and study about this period of history (and what resulted from it, including World War II), and I’ve found no more astute and telling published study than the three volumes by Richard J. Evans: The Coming of the Third Reich, The Third Reich in Power, and The Third Reich at War. Throughout the series, Evans reiterates how the Nazis came to power on the back of legally legislated restrictions on freedoms that the Weimar government had passed, and then the Nazis incrementally expanded those restrictions until no one was free.

One aspect of those numerous freedom-limiting laws was gun control, allegedly to quell the chaos and violence that existed (much of it purposely instigated). But as Stephen P. Halbrook points out in Gun Control in the Third Reich, the first such law, the 1928 Law on Firearms and Ammunition, focused “not on repression of armed violence, but on regulation of the predominantly peaceable citizenry.” Permission to carry a firearm was limited to those “whose reliability is unquestioned.” Sounds innocuous enough. But criminal types (including the Nazi Brown Shirts) did not surrender their weapons; only law-abiding citizens did. The Weimar leaders didn’t intend to repress the people, but they set the precedent whereby, when the Nazis gained power four years later, they did repress the people. That initial law was the “thin edge of the wedge.”

Once in power, the Nazis legally passed sequential legislation first requiring registration of all firearms; then requiring licenses to make, buy, or sell firearms; and then prohibiting possession of firearms by selected groups of people (e.g., the mentally unbalanced or those who had proven themselves to be violent, Jews, and others who were not “reliable,” that is, loyal to the Nazis). Eventually, only the police and military could possess firearms. These actions not only restricted the exercise of the natural right of self-defense but also (and most importantly to the Nazis) prevented any armed uprising of the people against the atrocities that the Nazis were determined to perpetrate against them and that Hitler himself had promised.

The Nazis did not really care about the safety and security of the citizens of Germany. But they knew that to gain and retain power to do what Hitler envisioned (i.e, the destruction of all Jews and the domination of the world by the “Aryans”), the Nazis first must disarm the people. He said as much in 1942:

The most foolish mistake we could possibly make would be to allow the subjugated races to possess arms. History shows that all conquerors who have allowed their subjugated races to carry arms have prepared their own downfall by so doing. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the supply of arms to the underdogs is the sine qua non for the overthrow of any sovereignty.

But it could never happen in America–could it?

Consider the vitriol leveled by U.S. senators against professing Christians during the recent confirmation hearings. Consider the angry and violent orchestrated and choreographed protests that have occurred, with the encouragement of many elected officials, against what heretofore had been the norm for a moral people. And then let your mind’s film reel replay the scene in Germany, in which Jews were the targets. Given the opportunity, such could easily become the fate of Christians–and other groups who might oppose government schemes to erode our freedoms. Sadly, masses of citizens would applaud and support such actions–for “safety and security,” of course, especially “for the children.” And all the legal forms for bringing it about could already be in place. The fate of all the freedoms enshrined in the Bill of Rights hinges on what we do with the second of them.

But rather than wait for that time to come, why not study and learn from those who have gone before us? After all, the truism is that those who fail to study and learn from the past are condemned to repeat it. So what did our Founding Fathers have to say about the issue of gun rights? Here are a few examples from the volumes of similar statements:

  1. “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” (Benjamin Franklin, Historical Review of Pennsylvania, 1759)

  2. “The Constitution of most of our states (and of the United States) assert that all power is inherent in the people; that they may exercise it by themselves; that it is their right and duty to be at all times armed.” (Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Cartwright, June 5, 1824)

  3. “To disarm the people . . . [i]s the most effectual way to enslave them.” (George Mason, referring to advice given to the British Parliament by Pennsylvania governor Sir William Keith, The Debates in the Several State Conventions on the Adoption of the Federal Constitution, June 14, 1788)

  4. “Before a standing army can rule, the people must be disarmed, as they are in almost every country in Europe. The supreme power in America cannot enforce unjust laws by the sword; because the whole body of the people are armed, and constitute a force superior to any band of regular troops.” (Noah Webster, An Examination of the Leading Principles of the Federal Constitution, October 10, 1787)

  5. “Guard with jealous attention the public liberty. Suspect everyone who approaches that jewel. Unfortunately, nothing will preserve it but downright force. Whenever you give up t hat force, you are ruined. . . . The great object is that every man be armed. Everyone who is able might have a gun.” (Patrick Henry, speech to the Virginia Ratifying Convention, June 5, 1778).

  6. “This may be considered as the true palladium of liberty. . . . The right of self-defense is the first law of nature: in most governments it has been the study of rulers to continue this right within the narrowest limits possible. Wherever standing armies are kept up, and the right of the people to keep and bear arms is, under any color or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction.” (St. George Tucker, Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England, 1803)

  7. “The Constitution shall never be construed to prevent the people of the United States who are peaceable citizens from keeping their own arms.” (Samuel Adams, Massachusetts Ratifying Convention, 1788)

The lessons of history and the warnings of our Founders are there for our learning. If we ignore them or fail to assimilate them in our current environment, we have only ourselves to blame when our freedoms are lost. If you still doubt my assessment, study carefully the cited works by Evans and Halbrook and then make up your own mind.

Copyright (c) 2018, Dennis L. Peterson

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