The Volokh Conspiracy
Mostly law professors | Sometimes contrarian | Often libertarian | Always independent
The global history of mass shootings demonstrates that the vast majority of these crimes are perpetrated in places where citizen firearms ownership is close to nil. While people can argue about cause and effect, the facts are indisputable.
This might seem surprising to people who read a recent article in the New York Times claiming that the mass shootings in the United States are a direct consequence of the high density of gun ownership in the country. But the article is analytically flawed, as Robert VerBruggen detailed for National Review Online. For example, the Times article is based on a study by a professor who refuses to allow skeptics to see his data or his methodology. But let's hypothesize that the assertions by the professor are correct. It is still true that mass shooting fatalities are heavily concentrated in areas where citizen firearms possession is prohibited.
Consider, for example, some of the deadliest mass shootings of the 20th century. As soon as the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union began on June 22, 1941, special SS units called Einsatzgruppen were deployed for mass killings. All the Jews or Gypsies (also known as Roma) in a village would be assembled and marched out of town. Then they would all be shot at once. (Yehuda Bauer, "Jewish Resistance in the Ukraine and Belarus during the Holocaust," in Jewish Resistance Against the Nazis, Patrick Henry ed. [D. C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2014], pp. 485-93.)
Within a year, the 3,000 Einsatzgruppen, aided by several thousand helpers from the German police and military, had murdered about 1 million people, concentrating on small towns in formerly Soviet territory. (Hillary Earl, The Nuremberg SS-Einsatzgruppen Trial, 1945-1958 [Cambridge, U. K.: Cambridge Univ. Pr., 2009], pp. 4-8; Reuben Ainsztein, Jewish Resistance in Nazi-Occupied Eastern Europe [London: Elek Books, 1974], pp. 222-25.) Einsatzgruppen mass shootings took place not only in today's Russia but also in nations that the Soviet Communists had taken over, and which were then over-run by the Nazis: eastern Poland (taken by Stalin pursuant to the 1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact), Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia.
Because of psychological damage to the Einsatzgruppen, the Nazis attempted to replace mass shootings with mobile gas vans. But these did not work out well, partly because herding people into the gas vans required even closer contact with the victims than did mass shooting. (Earl, p. 7). Therefore, the Nazis invented extermination camps with huge gas chambers, which were more efficient at mass killing, and which created a larger physical (and, consequently, psychological) distance between the murderers and their victims.
In pre-WWII Poland and in the Soviet Union, "no firearm, not even a shotgun," could be lawfully possessed without a government permit. For most people, "such permits were impossible to obtain." (Ainsztein, p. 304; see also Chaika Grossman, The Underground Army: Fighters of Bialystok Ghetto, trans. Schmuel Beeri [N.Y.: Holocaust Library, 1987; first pub. in Israel 1965], p. 3.) "Not to allow the peasants to have arms" had been the policy "from time immemorial." (Ainsztein, p. 304.) In this regard, Lenin and Stalin carried on the Russian czarist tradition, as they did in many other ways. (See generally Eugene Lyons, Stalin: Czar of All the Russias [Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1940]; Simon Sebag Montefiore, Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar [N.Y.: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004].)
In Poland, the main way that firearms got into citizens' hands was peasant scavenging of rifles that had been left behind from the battles of World War I (1914-1918) and the Russo-Polish War (1919-1920). Usually the rifle barrels would be sawed short, for concealment. (Ainsztein, p. 304.) But thanks to the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact, the Soviet Union invaded and conquered the eastern third of Poland at the beginning of World War II. The Soviet secret police, the NKVD, "took great care to disarm the local population, and was very successful." (Ibid.)
The one big chance to acquire arms was in the chaos immediately after June 22, 1941. In those first weeks, the Soviet army reeled in retreat, leaving large quantities of weapons behind. But the abandoned arms tended to be in rural areas (where Polish peasants picked up many), whereas most Jews lived in cities or towns. (Ibid.)
During the chaotic early weeks on the Eastern Front, the Nazis successfully deterred most Jews from attempting to scavenge arms. As in every nation conquered by the Third Reich, being caught with a firearm meant instant death for oneself and one's family, and perhaps even for others, in reprisal. This was especially so for Jews. Disarmed, the Jews and Roma were soon destroyed.
Victims of a mass shooting perpetrated by organized government are just as dead as victims of a mass shooting perpetrated by a lone nut. Adopt the broadest definition of "mass shooting" that you want (e.g., three victims wounded, one killed). Add up all the mass shooting deaths from lunatics, organized crime, jihadist cells and ordinary criminals. The global, historical total of mass shooting deaths will be gruesome, and it will also be small compared to the total of mass shooting deaths perpetrated by criminal governments—including Fascists, Communists and non-ideological tyrants.
University of Hawaii political science professor R.J. Rummel compiled demographic data regarding genocide. He estimated the total number of victims of mass murders by governments from 1901 to 1990 to be 169,198,000. (Rudolph J. Rummel, Death by Government [Piscataway, N.J.: Transaction Pub., 2d ed. 2000].) This figure does not include deaths from wars; it includes only deliberate mass murder of civilian populations.
Because Rummel was only studying situations in which governments were engaged in major efforts to exterminate a large number of people, his 169 million victims figure does not include smaller-scale mass murders, including mass shootings. For example, if government agents shoot up a political rally, or attack an opposition newspaper, killing dozens of people, those deaths would not be included in Rummel's figures.
There are lots of means to perpetrate mass murder: with poison gas, with bombs, by running people over with trucks, working them to death in slave labor camps, or even by hacking them with machetes, as in Rwanda. However, mass shootings have been among the most common methods of mass murder around the world for more than a century. Even when victims are killed by other means, such as deliberate starvation or gas chambers, a government monopoly of arms is essential for governments being able to prevent the victims from resisting.
The illegitimate "governments" that perpetrate mass shootings or other forms of mass murder have worked assiduously to ensure that their intended victims are disarmed. This was true in Turkish Armenia in World War I; in Darfur, Sudan; in Indonesia's ethnic cleansing of East Timor; in Bosnia; in Kenya and Uganda; in Ethiopia against the Anuak; and in many other places.
Gun prohibition advocates insist that armed self-defense could not possibly make a difference when governments perpetrate mass shootings or other forms of mass murder. But this is true only for strawman scenarios. Of course the Jews in Nazi Germany could not have overthrown Hitler by themselves. Nor could the Jewish or Roma peasants in eastern Poland have single-handedly driven the Wehrmacht back to Germany. But at the least, armed resisters can fight back and kill some of the perpetrators. If every one of the 1 million Jews and Roma who were murdered by the Einsatzgruppen had possessed a good rifle, then it would not have been so simple for a million people to be slaughtered by a few thousand. Plenty of Einsatzgruppen would have been shot and that would at least have slowed down the pace of murders, providing more time for some potential victims to escape, and making it harder for Hitler's regime to recruit replacements.
Notwithstanding the assertions of anti-gun lobbyists that victim resistance is futile, the governments that perpetrate mass murders do fear armed citizens. That is why rigorous disarmament of the victims almost always precedes the killings.
Besides denying the universal human right that is recognized by the U.S. Second Amendment, the perpetrators also deny the universal human right recognized by the First Amendment: the exchange of information. It was not until early 1942 that Eastern European Jews began to realize that when Nazis moved people out of a city or town, the purpose was not deportation for slave labor, but rather extermination. The news of the Nazis' actual intentions was first spread by a Jan. 1, 1942, manifesto written by Abba Kovner, a young poet in Vilnius, Lithuania. Kovner's words were smuggled from ghetto to ghetto:
"Let us not go to slaughter like sheep! Jewish youth, do not trust the deceivers. . . . Hitler has invented a system for the destruction of all the Jews on Europe….It is true that we are weak and we have nobody to help us. But our only dignified answer to the enemy must be resistance! Brothers, it is better to die like free fighters than to live by the murderer's grace. Resist until your last breath!"
(Ainsztein, p. 499.)
"It can't happen here," some people say about the United States. But during the 1930s, there were lots of American supporters of Fascism and Communism. Today, there are far too many people on the political far left and far right who are openly hostile to civil liberty and to the Constitution. They palpably yearn to be ruled by a strongman. On nearly every college campus, many professors indoctrinate students in Marxist thinking, which in practical application is little different from Hitlerite thinking. As detailed by the Canary Mission, Jew-hating student "leaders" are common on American college campuses; like their brownshirt ancestors of the 1920s in Germany, they use violence and intimidation to suppress speech in favor of Jewish resistance to exterminationists, which today include organizations such as Hezbollah and Hamas.
Germany in 1900 was one of the most tolerant places in the world for Jews; in any country, things can change a lot in a few decades.
Contrary to the claims of the gun prohibition lobbies, sensible policies to minimize mass shootings are not simply a matter of confiscating guns from law-abiding citizens. The better approach was adopted by the United States as World War II loomed in Europe. First, laws should attempt to prevent firearms acquisition by individuals who have proven they are particularly likely to use firearms offensively. The first broad federal law to do so was the Federal Firearms Act of 1938, which, among other things, prohibited firearms sales to felons. This was later strengthened by the Gun Control Act of 1968. Today, the National Instant Criminal Background Check System works towards the same objective.
Second a policy for reducing the death toll of mass shootings also means ensuring that lawful defenders have the means to resist. This means abolishing laws that forbid licensed, trained adults to carry defensive handguns in certain locations, such as churches. It means not depriving good citizens of effective arms of resistance—such as Stephen Willeford'sAR-15 rifle that instantly ended the killing spree in Sutherland Springs, Tex., on Nov. 5.
Most of all, it means ensuring that our nation can never be turned into a "gun-free zone," in which a rogue government could perpetrate mass shootings without resistance. Thus, after Congress passed the Federal Firearms Act of 1938, it passed the Property Requisition of Act of 1941. This was the first of several federal statutes to outlaw federal gun registration and gun confiscation. The act was informed by what had already taken place in Europe, where Hitler and Stalin used registration lists to confiscate guns, create gun-free zones, and then perpetrate mass shootings. Registration, confiscation, extermination.
Humane and sensible firearms policy aims to deter illegitimate, offensive uses of firearms, and to foster legitimate, defensive uses. Unreasonable and unfair policy disarms everyone except the government and its favored elites. Not every nation that adopts the latter policy ends up with genocide. Yet the historical record is clear that mass disarmament of citizens can be the gateway to millions of deaths by mass shooting.
Some of this essay is based on Kopel's book "The Morality of Self-Defense and Military Action: The Judeo-Christian Perspective" (Praeger 2017).