Politics

01.12.13

Guns, Slavery, and the Holocaust

Michael Tomasky on the nonsensical, unbelievably offensive argument that gun rights help protect minorities from oppression.

They still save the Hitler invocations for the special occasions, so you could tell earlier this week when Matt Drudge went with his absurd Hitler and Stalin homepage about Obama and guns that we are at what the paranoid right thinks of as a watershed moment. Let’s hope to God it is. Drudge’s page was of course crazy: the whiff of fascism in this gun debate sure isn’t emanating from the White House, but from the direction of the forces using the techniques for which Hitler was famous during his rise to power—accusing the other side of doing precisely what he and his henchmen were doing, inverting the truth on its head in ways that offended common sense and morality at every turn.

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President Obama promised there would be change to gun laws after the rampage at a Newtown school. Political columnists David Frum and Michael Tomasky break down the debate.

Let’s start with yesterday’s news about Gun Appreciation Day, the invention of a certain Larry Ward. He is planning the big day to coincide with the president’s inauguration, set for Monday, Jan. 21. When reminded by a CNN interviewer that this was also the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, Ward, like all propagandists, was ready with an answer: “I think Martin Luther King Jr. would agree with me if he were alive today that if African Americans had been given the right to keep and bear arms from day one of the country’s founding, perhaps slavery might not have been a chapter in our history.”

It’s always a tip off when they say King “would have agreed with me.” We’re about to endure another round of this when King Day comes and conservatives dish out the obligatory “King would be a conservative today” columns. It’s completely ridiculous, as is the idea that armed slaves would have managed anything more than the wholesale slaughter by their far better-armed masters of many of their number.

But Ward, it turns out, walks a well-worn path of gun advocates trying to pretend that they pursue the policies they pursue for the sake of the powerless. In the 1970s, the first big gun debate in the country after the 1968 Gun Control Act—which the NRA supported—concerned “Saturday night specials,” the small, cheap handguns used in many crimes in that decade when street crime skyrocketed. The NRA needed an argument that might land sympathetically on the ear of a natural foe, and then-leader Harlon Carter, the man who politicized and radicalized what had theretofore been a moderate and sensible group, found one. As Rick Perlstein notes in The Nation, Carter dubbed the Saturday night special “the girl’s best friend,” arguing that it was “small enough to fit into a woman’s purse.”

This all brings us back to Hitler himself. He’s been used before by gun advocates, as Gavin Aronsen wrote in Mother Jones, and in the same way as above: if Hitler hadn’t barred Jews from owning guns, then the Holocaust might never have happened. Wayne LaPierre took up this line of argument in the mid-1990s.

Harlon Carter dubbed the Saturday night special “the girl’s best friend,” arguing that it was “small enough to fit into a woman’s purse.”

So there you are—guns, you see, aren’t merely or even really for sportsmen, or for homeowners seeking to protect their property and family. They’re for oppressed minorities to fight off the oppressor, and even to make revolution. To believe that armed Jews could have prevented the Holocaust requires so many gargantuan leaps of faith about how that might have happened that it’s completely fantastical and ridiculous. No one can seriously believe this. They say it purely for propagandistic purposes. A person who can use the Holocaust for present-day propaganda purposes will do pretty much anything.

In a rational world, in the wake of the massacre of 20 6- and 7-year-old children, the NRA would be saying: you know, you’re right; we more than anyone else advocate safe and legal gun use, and we more than anyone else have an interest in seeing to it that things like this don’t happen. So let’s sit down and craft some laws. That was what the NRA did, in fact, until the 1970s, when the right-wing started smelling political advantage in pressing the many fronts of the culture war. But that isn’t our world, and so we have the grotesque spectacle of the NRA using this massacre and the government’s attempt to do something about it to rile gun owners to the point of insurrection.

I hope Biden comes out with tough recommendations Tuesday. Even if the administration has to back down from a couple of things eventually and settle for less than it wanted—and less than we need—I hope at least that Obama and Biden are willing to do us all the simple honor of speaking the truth about the gun lobby. If they can’t be defeated just yet, they can at least be spoken of as the monsters they are. And if Newtown is not fated to result in wholesale changes in gun laws, at least it might be remembered 10 or 20 years from now as the beginning of the end of the NRA, the start of a period when the lies lost some of their force.