Comparing gun control activism to Hitler is not new. In a 1994 book, “Guns, Crime and Freedom,” NRA Executive Vice President Wayne LaPierre wrote that “In Germany, firearm registration helped lead to the Holocaust.”
But the history of civilian gun ownership under the Nazis, scholars say, is far more complicated than the rhetoric indicates.
After World War I, Germany signed a peace treaty requiring dismantling of much of its army and limiting weapons import and export. But many of the 1 million soldiers returning home joined armed militias, including a Nazi Party force that saw Communists as the leading threat.
“Technically, they (the militias) were illegal and the guns were illegal, but a lot of government officials didn’t care about right-wingers with guns taking on Communists,” said David Redles, co-author of “Hitler and Nazi Germany: A History,” a popular college text. By 1928, however, officials decided they had to get a handle on the militias and their weapons and passed a law requiring registration of all guns, said Redles, who teaches at Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland.
Soon after Hitler was named chancellor in 1933, he used the arson of the Reichstag as an excuse to push through a decree allowing for the arrest of many Communists and the suspension of civil rights including protections from search and seizure.
But as the Nazis increasingly targeted Jews and others they considered enemies, they moved in 1938 to loosen gun statutes for the loyal majority, said Bernard Harcourt, a University of Chicago professor of law and political science who has studied gun regulations under Hitler.
The 1938 law is best known for barring Jews from owning weapons, after which the Nazis confiscated guns from Jewish homes. But Harcourt points out that Hitler’s gun law otherwise completely deregulated acquisition of rifles, long guns and ammunition. It exempted many groups from requiring permits. The law lowered the age for legal gun ownership from 20 to 18. And it extended the validity of gun permits from one year to three years.