CLAIM

Internet list accurately cites historical facts and figures proving that the worst mass exterminations of civilian populations in the twentieth century were the result of gun control laws.

MOSTLY FALSE

RATING

MOSTLY FALSE

WHAT'S TRUE

Mass killings of civilians by military dictatorships in the 1900s were more often than not preceded by the confiscation of firearms from targeted populations, a task made easier by laws requiring the registration and/or licensing of privately-owned weapons.

WHAT'S FALSE

"Gun control" isn't synonymous with gun confiscation; in some cases where genocides took place, the gun laws in force had existed for years, even decades; evidence does not demonstrate a causal link between gun control and mass exterminations.

ORIGIN

If you’ve landed on this page, odds are another mass shooting has occurred in the United States. We don’t say this flippantly. Depending on how you define “mass shooting” (there’s a discussion of the various ways to do so here), as of 5 November 2017 there had been no fewer than 10 (according to Mother Jones magazine) and as many as 307 (according to the Gun Violence Archive) mass shootings in the U.S. during that year alone.

In the deadliest shooting so far, on 1 October 2017, 58 people were killed and 546 were wounded at an outdoor concert in Las Vegas by a lone shooter armed with 23 guns. Even for a nation painfully accustomed to grappling with gun violence, this was an immense loss. Yet among the outpourings of grief, the pangs of soul searching and regret, and the inevitable calls for tougher gun regulations, there was also this — a decades-old (1996 vintage, by our best estimate) recitation of the horrors of “gun control,” freshly re-shared for the occasion:

A LITTLE GUN HISTORY

In 1929, the Soviet Union established gun control. From 1929 to 1953, about 20 million dissidents, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.

In 1911, Turkey established gun control. From 1915 to 1917, 1.5 million Armenians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.

Germany established gun control in 1938 and from 1939 to 1945, a total of 13 million Jews and others who were unable to defend themselves were rounded up and exterminated.

China established gun control in 1935. From 1948 to 1952, 20 million political dissidents, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.

Guatemala established gun control in 1964. From 1964 to 1981, 100,000 Mayan Indians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.

Uganda established gun control in 1970. From 1971 to 1979, 300,000 Christians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.

Cambodia established gun control in 1956. From 1975 to 1977, one million educated people, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.

Defenseless people rounded up and exterminated in the 20th Century because of gun control: 56 million.

It has now been 12 months since gun owners in Australia were forced by new law to surrender 640,381 personal firearms to be destroyed by their own Government, a program costing Australia taxpayers more than $500 million dollars. The first year results are now in:

List of 7 items:

Australia-wide, homicides are up 3.2 percent.

Australia-wide, assaults are up 8.6 percent.

Australia-wide, armed robberies are up 44 percent (yes, 44 percent)!

In the state of Victoria alone, homicides with firearms are now up 300 percent. Note that while the law-abiding citizens turned them in, the criminals did not, and criminals still possess their guns!

While figures over the previous 25 years showed a steady decrease in armed robbery with firearms, this has changed drastically upward in the past 12 months, since criminals now are guaranteed that their prey is unarmed.

There has also been a dramatic increase in break-ins and assaults of the ELDERLY. Australian politicians are at a loss to explain how public safety has decreased, after such monumental effort, and expense was expended in successfully ridding Australian society of guns. The Australian experience and the other historical facts above prove it.

You won’t see this data on the US evening news, or hear politicians disseminating this information…. The NY Sullivan Act intended to tip the advantage toward Irish criminals, away from Italian criminals, and far away from the lawful.

Guns in the hands of honest citizens save lives and property and, yes, gun-control laws adversely affect only the law-abiding citizens.

Take note my fellow Americans, before it’s too late!

The next time someone talks in favor of gun control, please remind them of this history lesson.

With guns, we are ‘citizens’. Without them, we are ‘subjects’.

During WWII the Japanese decided not to invade America because they knew most Americans were ARMED!

If you value your freedom, please spread this anti-gun control message to all of your friends.

All of those assertions beg for fact checking, but before we dig into the particulars it will be useful to recall some of the history of America’s unique relationship with firearms for clues as to why someone might feel posting such a polemic is called for.

The Second Amendment

In addition to boasting the highest rate of gun ownership per capita of any country in the world (and the highest firearm-related homicide rate of any developed country, according to the American Journal of Medicine), Americans have a thing called the “gun control debate.” To be sure, most other countries wrestle with how and to what extent private gun ownership ought be regulated too, but the issue has a special potency for U.S. citizens thanks to what is known as “the right to keep and bear arms,” a birthright guaranteed and protected for the past 200-plus years by the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which reads:

A well-regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed. 

Arguments about how to properly interpret the vaguely-worded amendment remain at the heart of the gun control debate two centuries later. In simplest terms, there are two schools of thought, one holding that the Second Amendment protects a collective right for the purpose of providing for the common defense (emphasis on the “well-regulated militia” clause), and the other holding that it protects an individual right irrespective of any such purpose.

One finds both readings anticipated in individual state constitutions adopted prior to the ratification of the Second Amendment. While North Carolina’s 1776 constitution limited the purpose of the right to bear arms to defending the state, for example (“…the people have a right to bear arms, for the defense of the state”), as did the Massachusetts constitution of 1780 (“The people have a right to keep and bear arms for the common defense”), the 1776 and 1777 constitutions of Pennsylvania and Vermont specified that “…the people have a right to bear arms for the defense of themselves and the state.”

Guns vs. Tyranny

Historically, the U.S. Supreme Court has swung both ways in interpreting the Second Amendment, favoring the “common defense” reading for the better part of the twentieth century before veering sharply to an individual “self-defense” interpretation with its landmark District of Columbia v. Heller decision of 2008. Associate Justice Antonin Scalia’s majority opinion in that decision, which overturned a law prohibiting handgun possession in Washington, D.C., hinged mainly on a careful parsing of the language of the amendment that reveals, Scalia argued, an intent on the part of the framers to protect an individual right completely independent of the militia clause. Interestingly, however, he went on to make the tangential case that, anyway, the framers understood “militia” to mean a “people’s militia” made up of private citizens whose right to bear arms could not be abrogated by their own government, thus providing a “safeguard against tyranny”:

It was understood across the political spectrum that the right helped to secure the ideal of a citizen militia, which might be necessary to oppose an oppressive military force if the constitutional order broke down.

It is therefore entirely sensible that the Second Amendment’s prefatory clause announces the purpose for which the right was codified: to prevent elimination of the militia. The prefatory clause does not suggest that preserving the militia was the only reason Americans valued the ancient right; most undoubtedly thought it even more important for self-defense and hunting. But the threat that the new Federal Government would destroy the citizens’ militia by taking away their arms was the reason that right — unlike some other English rights — was codified in a written Constitution.

The dissenting justices in the case (the more liberal contingent: Stevens, Souter, Ginsburg, and Breyer) argued that the established interpretation of the Second Amendment upheld by previous Supreme Courts (namely that the “well-regulated militia” clause was meant to restrict the scope of the protected right to a collective, not an individual one) ought to stand, with Breyer adding that even granting an individual-right interpretation of the amendment, restrictions such as handgun bans and trigger-lock requirements would still be constitutional.

In any case, the Heller decision was music to the ears of pro-firearms groups such as the National Rifle Association (NRA), and not just because it went in their favor. For decades, the premise that private gun ownership is synonymous with freedom and resisting tyranny had been a cornerstone of the NRA’s lobbying and recruitment efforts. For example, a full-page newspaper ad for the group in 1989 read:

America’s founding fathers understood that an armed people are a free people. Free to rise up against tyranny. That’s why the individual armed citizen remains one of democracy’s strongest symbols.

It’s but a short step from there to the more extreme assertion that any effort to restrict the right to bear arms is itself a prelude to (if not an instance of) tyranny — which is in fact the tack taken in the Internet text before us. Relying on absolutist language that does not distinguish between regulation and confiscation, the text trumpets the conclusion that 56 million people were rounded up and exterminated during the twentieth century “because of gun control.”

Tempting as it is to dismiss that kind of language as mere rhetoric, bear in mind that a sizable portion of the American public buys into the “slippery slope” mentality that undergirds it, with 52 percent of Republican Party voters agreeing in a 2015 public opinion poll, for example, that it is somewhat-to-very likely that “stricter gun laws will eventually lead to the federal government trying to take away guns from Americans who legally own them.” This is the text’s target audience.

Flawed Reasoning

The term “gun control” is not, in fact, synonymous with “gun confiscation,” “gun prohibition,” or “gun registration” (although gun control can take any of those forms). Nor is the “gun control debate” about whether or not gun control laws ought to exist in the United States at all — they already do on both the federal and state levels, because the right to bear arms must be balanced against the safety and well-being of the populace as a whole. In practical terms, gun control boils down to addressing issues such as how to keep lethal weapons out of the hands of criminals and the mentally deranged, how to regulate their manufacture and sale, and what types of firearms and ammunition are appropriate for private citizens to own and use. 

Besides leaving the term undefined and implying it means taking away people’s weapons, the text fallaciously asserts a causal link between “gun control” and mass exterminations. For one thing, it fails to take into account other determining factors — most notably, what sorts of political regimes committed all these atrocities (hint: they weren’t democracies). It also fails to take into account counter-examples of nations (including the United States) with longstanding gun control laws on the books where no mass exterminations have occurred. Consider, too, that, in several of the cited instances the gun control laws in effect when the genocides took place were enacted years or even decades earlier. 

It’s further implied that unrestricted private gun ownership would have prevented the genocides from occurring. Although a greater availability of weapons would have put targeted populations in a better position to defend themselves, however, it’s not a given that they would have prevailed over the better-equipped, better-trained government forces sent to annihilate them.

Fact Check

As best we can determine, most of the facts and figures cited in the Internet text are very loosely based on research published in two (now out-of-print) books, Death by ‘Gun Control’ by Aaron Zelman and Richard W. Stevens, published by Mazel Freedom Press in 2001, and Lethal Laws: Gun Control Is the Key to Genocide by Jay Simkin, Aaron Zelman, and Alan M. Rice, published by Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership (JPFO) in 1994. We’ve relied on scholarly reviews of those books (mainly Dave Kopel’s “Lethal Laws,” published in the New York Law School Journal of International and Comparative Law in 1995) for access to some of the authors’ original research and findings, which have been garbled almost beyond recognition in the text we will now examine in more detail.

Claim: “In 1929, the Soviet Union established gun control. From 1929 to 1953, about 20 million dissidents, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.”

The time period cited, 1929 to 1953, roughly coincides with dictatorship of Joseph Stalin, whose regime was responsible for the deaths of many millions of people, though historians disagree on the total. For a long time, 20 million was the generally accepted number, but since the fall of the Soviet Union more documentation has become available.

“Exact numbers may never be known with complete certainty, but the total of deaths caused by the whole range of the Soviet regime’s terrors can hardly be lower than some 15 million,” wrote historian Robert Conquest in his 2008 book The Great Terror: A Reassessment, to cite one example. In 2011, Yale historian Timothy Snyder cited a significantly lower number, 6 million, as “the total figure of civilians deliberately killed under Stalinism.” Either way, it’s not strictly accurate to say that all of Stalin’s victims were “rounded up and exterminated.” More than 3 million died of forced starvation.

Gun control regulations, including a requirement to register all weapons with the government, were in force during that period. “Policemen were responsible for gun control,” writes Katherine Bliss Eaton in Daily Life in the Soviet Union (Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004):

Private citizens and institutions could own hunting weapons if they had police permission and registered their guns at the local station house. The militia could confiscate weapons and ammunition from people who showed signs of dangerously irresponsible behavior.

Large-scale gun confiscations were aimed at subpopulations deemed to be subversive or dissident. For example, Robert Conquest reports in The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (Oxford University Press, 1987) that rural peasants were disarmed en masse for purposes of enforcing the social policy of “agricultural collectivization,” which the peasants resisted:

In 1929-30 a great effort had been made to prevent the peasantry possessing arms. Registration of hunting weapons had become compulsory in decrees of 1926, 1928, and 1929, and rules were also established to ensure that “criminal and socially dangerous elements” should not be sold guns, this to be “checked by the GPU [Soviet secret police] authorities.” In August 1930, when various minor insurrections and individual acts of resistance had made it clear that this was not being obeyed, a massive arms search was ordered. By this time, however, few arms were left.

Gun registration and targeted confiscations therefore played an essential role in Stalin’s genocidal activities.

Claim: “In 1911, Turkey established gun control. From 1915 to 1917, 1.5 million Armenians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.”

This entry refers to the Armenian genocide, in which as many as 1.5 million Armenians (then a persecuted Christian minority concentrated in the eastern provinces of Ottoman Turkey) were massacred by the Ottoman Empire.

With regard to gun ownership, non-Muslims had never been legally permitted to privately own weapons under Ottoman rule (though some did), but military conscription laws enacted by a newly constituted government (the so-called “Young Turks”) between 1908 and 1914 put guns in the hands of tens of thousands of Armenians drafted to fight for the empire in World War I. After suffering military losses early on in that war, the government blamed the Armenians, whom they accused of treachery and subversion, and on that pretext embarked on a program of disarming and eradicating the Armenian population as a whole. 

New York Times foreign correspondent John Kifner wrote:

The Young Turks, who called themselves the Committee of Unity and Progress, launched a set of measures against the Armenians, including a law authorizing the military and government to deport anyone they “sensed” was a security threat.

A later law allowed the confiscation of abandoned Armenian property. Armenians were ordered to turn in any weapons that they owned to the authorities. Those in the army were disarmed and transferred into labor battalions where they were either killed or worked to death.

There were executions into mass graves, and death marches of men, women and children across the Syrian desert to concentration camps with many dying along the way of exhaustion, exposure and starvation.

The Armenians had been officially prohibited from owning firearms for hundreds of years in the Ottoman Empire; what weapons they did have were confiscated in the interests of eradicating that part of the population.

Claim: “Germany established gun control in 1938 and from 1939 to 1945, a total of 13 million Jews and others who were unable to defend themselves were rounded up and exterminated.”

This is misleading. Jews were prohibited from owning guns and disarmed. Overall, however, gun control laws passed by the Nazis in 1938 actually loosened firearms restrictions that had been in force since the end of World War I.

Gun ownership was banned outright for all German citizens in 1919. A 1928 revision of the law lifted the ban, while still requiring individuals to obtain permits to own, sell, carry, or manufacture firearms. According to Stephen Halbrook, author of Gun Control in the Third Reich: Disarming the Jews and ‘Enemies of the State’ (Independence Institute, 2013), the Nazis used the extant law when they came to power in 1933 to revoke the permits of communists, Jews, and other “undesirables,” and disarm them. The first gun law actually enacted under Nazi rule, the German Weapons Act of 1938, eased some of the permit requirements (those on rifles and ammunition, though not on handguns), and lowered the legal age for the possession of firearms, but also forbade Jews, specifically, from manufacturing or selling arms.

The Regulations Against Jews’ Possession of Weapons, enacted later that year, prohibited Jews from possessing or carrying any kind of weapon at all.

So, while the Nazis ultimately favored loosening gun restrictions on the German population as a whole, the disarmament of Jews and other targeted minority populations was an essential feature of Hitler’s genocidal program, which included the murder of six million Jews (and millions of others deemed unworthy to live under the Third Reich) between 1938 and the end of World War II. 

Claim: “China established gun control in 1935. From 1948 to 1952, 20 million political dissidents, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.”

As in the case of the Soviet Union, historians disagree on how many Chinese civilians perished at the hands of the communist government. One source, Hong Kong historian Frank Dikötter, estimates that as many as 45 million people were “worked, starved or beaten to death” in China between 1948 and 1952. Other sources place the death toll at closer to one million. 

The claim that China “established gun control in 1935” appears to have been plucked from mid-air. According to Lethal Laws, a 1912 law made it illegal to possess or import rifles, cannons, or explosives without a permit. The Security Administration Punishment Act of 1957 took the additional step of making it illegal to make, purchase, or possess firearms or ammunition without the government’s permission — though by that time at least a million “class enemies” had already died in the name of Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution.

Claim: “Guatemala established gun control in 1964. From 1964 to 1981, 100,000 Mayan Indians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.”

According to the Center for Justice and Accountability, well over 100,000 indigenous Mayans were indeed systematically murdered by the Guatemalan government between 1960 and 1996 (concurrent with the Guatemala Civil War). It should be noted, however, Guatemala’s stringent gun control laws, which required expensive, hard-to-obtain permits for carrying firearms, predated the 1960s by some forty years. For the most part it would have been unnecessary for the government to confiscate weapons from their intended victims, however, given that (as Kopel points out) firearms were too costly for Mayan peasants to obtain in the first place.

Claim: “Uganda established gun control in 1970. From 1971 to 1979, 300,000 Christians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.”

Ugandan dictator Idi Amin is indeed considered responsible for the massacre of at least 300,000 civilians in his own country, most of them members of Christian tribes loyal to his predecessor, Milton Obote. Rather than being rounded up for extermination, Amin’s victims were typically murdered on the spot by roving bands of soldiers.

Before Obote, Uganda’s gun control laws (dating from 1955) allowed the private ownership of weapons by permit only, and applicants were required to prove their “fitness” to carry firearms. Obote’s government rewrote the law in 1969, instituting a total, nationwide ban on the ownership and possession of weapons except for government officials and individuals who were granted special exemptions. Kopel reports that the law changed again in 1970, under Amin, essentially reverting to a version of the 1955 law requiring permits and proof of fitness for gun ownership, but by that time, presumably, a large percentage of the guns in private hands had already been confiscated.

Claim: “Cambodia established gun control in 1956. From 1975 to 1977, one million educated people, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated.”

The actual estimates are that between 1.5 and 3 million Cambodians, including about a half-million members of ethnic minority groups, were slaughtered by the communist Khmer Rouge between 1975 and 1979. Although the dictatorship enacted no gun laws itself, there were gun control measures on the books dating from 1920 and 1938 that required the licensing of firearms and limited their ownership to hunters. 

According to the Small Arms Survey of the Graduate Institute of International Studies, the Khmer Rouge went about disarming the Cambodian public — and arming itself — via a program of gun confiscation:

The Khmer Rouge regime eliminated the previous elite, and in the process effectively ended private gun ownership. Memoirs of the time provide accounts of how Khmer Rouge cadres confiscated firearms along with watches, motorbikes, and foreign currencies during the first days of the takeover of power in Phnom Penh (Simkin and Rice, 1994, supra note 2, p. 306; referred to in Kopel,1995).

During the rule of the Khmer Rouge, all private firearms were moved from private ownership into the stockpiles of the regime.

Claim: “Defenseless people rounded up and exterminated in the 20th Century because of gun control: 56 million.”

This simply isn’t true, and not just because historians still quibble over the exact numbers of those killed. Tens of millions of people became victims of genocide in the twentieth century because they were members of groups targeted for eradication for reasons of ethnicity, religion, or ideology by ruthless military dictatorships. More often than not, these massacres were preceded by (or concurrent with) concerted efforts to disarm the targeted populations, a task obviously made easier by the existence of gun registration requirements. But to say those millions died because of gun control is an abuse of the facts and logic.

Claim: “It has now been 12 months since gun owners in Australia were forced by new law to surrender 640,381 personal firearms to be destroyed by their own Government, a program costing Australia taxpayers more than $500 million dollars. … Australia-wide, homicides are up 3.2 percent. Australia-wide, assaults are up 8.6 percent. [etc.]”

In case it isn’t obvious, this item is categorically different from all the others on the list in that it claims that the establishment of gun control resulted in a higher violent crime rate in a country rather than a mass extermination. As we have demonstrated previously (because this set of assertions about gun laws Australia has made the social media rounds separately from the rest of the text), it is false.

Ironically, it also stands as a counter-example disproving the main thesis of the overall text, namely that gun control leads to mass exterminations. Twenty years after strict national gun control laws were enacted in Australia, the country remains genocide-free.

Claim: “During WWII the Japanese decided not to invade America because they knew most Americans were ARMED!”

Not so. This urban legend of World War II based on an alleged quote from Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (“You cannot invade mainland United States. There would be a rifle behind each blade of grass.”) was debunked in 2009 by FactCheck.org. Although the quote has long circulated, online and off, no one has ever been able to cite a source to substantiate it. As World War II historian Donald M. Goldstein told the web site, “As of today it is bogus until someone can cite when and where [it was said].”

Conclusion

Based on the actual evidence at hand, we find it reasonable to conclude that gun confiscations, facilitated by laws requiring the registration and/or licensing of firearms, played a crucial role in the carrying out of twentieth-century genocides. However, gun control per se — properly defined as a set of laws regulating gun ownership that can range from minimally restrictive to outright prohibitive — is neither a cause nor even a reliable predictor of mass exterminations, whereas the presence of a repressive military dictatorship most certainly is.

Sources:

Adalian, Rouben Paul.  “Young Turks and the Armenian Genocide.”
Armenian National Institute.  Accessed 5 November 2017.

Carter, Gregg Lee.  Guns in American Society: An Encyclopedia of History, Politics, Culture, and the Law, Vol. 1.
  Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2012.  ISBN 9780313386701.

Cohen, Jerome Alan.  The Criminal Process in the People’s Republic of China, 1949-1953: An Introduction, Vol. 2.
  Boston: Harvard University Press, 1968.  ISBN 9780674176508.

Conquest, Robert.  The Great Terror: A Reassessment.
  Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008.  ISBN 9780195316995.

Conquest, Robert.  The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-famine.
  
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987.  ISBN 9780195051803.

Eaton, Katherine Bliss.  Daily Life in the Soviet Union.
  Westport, CT: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2004.  ISBN 9780313316289.

Forsythe, David P.  Encyclopedia of Human Rights.
  New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2009.  ISBN 9780195334029.

Harcourt, Bernard E.  “On Gun Registration, the NRA, Adolf Hitler, and Nazi Gun Laws: Exploding the Gun Culture Wars (A Call to Historians).”
  Fordham Law Review.  2004.

Kifner, John.  “Armenian Genocide of 1915: An Overview.”
  The New York Times.  Accessed 5 November 2017.

Kopel, Dave.  “Lethal Laws.”
  N.Y. Law School Journal of International & Comparative Law.  1995.

McMeekin, Sean.  The Ottoman Endgame: War, Revolution, and the Making of the Modern Middle East, 1908-1923.
  London: Penguin, 2016.  ISBN 9780143109808.

Shelley, Louise I.  Policing Soviet Society: The Evolution of State Control.
  Hove, UK: Psychology Press, 1996.  ISBN 9780415104708.

Snyder, Timothy.  “Hitler vs. Stalin: Who Killed More?”
  New York Review of Books.  10 March 2011.

Law Library of Congress.  “Firearms-Control Legislation and Policy.”
  30 July 2015.

The National Archives.  “The Armenian Massacres.”
  Accessed 5 November 2017.