Don Kates "How Banning Guns Promotes Mass Murder"


1) Genocide rarely works where a victim group is armed—in fact, it is almost never even attempted. 2) Almost every 20th century genocide occurred in nations that had forbidden gun ownership. 3) Many genocides involved civilian killers using axes, knives and other ordinary tools. 4) The killers were whipped up and led by armed officials, and in the rare cases where civilian killers had guns, those guns were given to them by their government and then collected after the killings. 5) Thirty-four times more victims were killed by governments in 20th century genocide than were murdered by 20th century criminals.

By "genocide" I mean mass murder. I don't distinguish between genocide, politicide, religicide, etc. And I am not including ordinary civilian casualties of wars. Consider the two wars between Ethiopia and Eritrea. The first was when Eritrea seceded. Though Ethiopia eventually lost, it exterminated 300,000 unarmed Eritreans to terrorize the rest. Ten years later the nations fought a new war so brutal it killed 100,000 soldiers. Yet only a few hundred civilians died because there was no deliberate policy of extermination.

Westerners are severely misled by the example of the Holocaust, which is the mass murder best known to us. We dismiss genocide as a unique result of German irrationality that could never happen in our countries. Historian Robert Control refuted this by consulting three modern genocide experts. All agreed that if scholars had been asked in 1900 to predict the nations that would commit genocide in the next 50 years, some correct predictions would have been made and some incorrect. But what no scholar in 1900 would have predicted is that within 50 years, tolerant, civilized Germany would kill 6 million Jews, or any Jews. The lesson is simple: No one can be confident his society won't embark on genocidal violence a few decades hence.

Twentieth century governments massacred 170 million unarmed civilians—usually for rational reasons. From 1945 to 2000 there were 41 genocides, each taking at least 50,000 lives in nations that were threatened by civil war or guerrilla attack. There, 41 were not the only genocides since 1945, nor were there only 50,000 victims in each. The common thread is that all 41 were undertaken by a government that calculated it could reduce its problems by mass murder of unarmed people deemed sympathetic to its attackers.

Genocide slacked off considerably at the end of the 20th century. Why? Because other nations looking at the results decided the social and economic costs of previous genocides had just been too high. Sometimes it is cheaper to compromise and live with some minority group than to exterminate it. For the same reason, armed minorities were rarely attacked. It was obvious that killing them would cost more than compromising with them.

Consider the 1990's Serbian genocides. Having inherited most of the arms of the former Yugoslav army, the Serbs attacked the Croats. They stopped when it turned out the Croats had also inherited some guns and then acquired more. Instead, the Serbs attacked the Bosnian Muslims, who had no guns and were unable to get any because of the U.N. embargo. Some 300,000 Muslims were murdered until finally, Muslim nations, who are not as high-minded as the U.N., smuggled in enough arms that the Serbs stopped—because they were taking casualties instead of just killing unarmed victims.

Now suppose the 300,000 Eritrean civilians had been armed. The ragtag Ethiopian army would not have been able to murder them. It probably would not even have tried since that would have driven them into joining the rebels. Nor could Idi Amin's death squads—only 30,000 strong—have killed 300,000 Ugandans had the Ugandans been armed. Nor could the 100,000-man Khmer Rouge army have killed 2.5 million Cambodians had they been armed. The Holocaust was the worst case for armed resistance because the Jews were a small group scattered across a whole continent that was either indifferent to their deaths or approved. But even in the Holocaust there were many incidents where individual Jews survived because they were armed.

It is crucial to understand how anti-gun advocates respond to all this. They don't. They simply don't consider whether their goal of confiscating all civilian guns may facilitate genocide. Moreover, to the very slight extent that they discuss any aspect of genocide, they solemnly claim and blame genocide on government being absent and on civilians having guns. This is so false I have been unable to find even one 20th century genocide following that pattern. Very rarely has genocide been committed by civilians with little or no government involvement, e.g., the Hindu-Muslim slaughters that followed Indian independence. But in all those cases the killing was done with knives, machetes, scythes and other common tools, not guns. Far more frequent were genocides by civilians who were incited to kill with such tools by agents of government who led them. And in some cases governments gave civilians guns that were recollected after the killing. (Even in those cases most of the killing was with tools, not guns.) In all cases the society's laws promoted genocide by forbidding civilians to have guns.

Though guns can be used offensively, they are primarily defensive weapons. They are the only weapons that allow the weak to defend against the strong. As anti-gun advocates say (without ever realizing the implications), guns "are widely used in conflicts involving uneducated combatants and children because they are easy to handle effectively with a minimum of training." Their "widespread circulation among substate groups or civilians can provide such groups with firepower that matches or exceeds that of national police or even military forces," and "a single individual or small armed group can pose a tremendous threat to society."

What that implies (to anyone willing and able to consider the implications) is that if victim groups have guns, that alone may deter government from even embarking on genocide. That deterrent may be especially great for Third World peoples who do not have highly effective troops but just civilians armed with farm and other tools. To repeat, alone of all weapons, firearms allow the weak to defeat an attack by the strong.

In closing, let me stress three things: First, genocide took many times as many 20th century lives as did ordinary gun murders. Second, you cannot predict whether your society will engage in genocide 30 or 50 years hence. Third, though anti-gun writers have scant interest in genocide, genocide perpetrators are very interested in victim gun ownership. Upon seizing power, the Khmer Rouge conducted a house-to-house, hut-to-hut search for arms throughout Cambodia. As a witness recounts, "They would knock on the doors and ask the people who answered if they had any weapons. 'We are here now to protect you,' the soldiers said, 'and no one has a need for a weapon anymore.' People who said that they kept no weapons were [nevertheless] forced to stand aside and allow the soldiers to look for themselves..."

When the soldiers were satisfied no one had guns, the killing began.


Don B. Kates Jr., a criminologist, civil liberties lawyer and former professor of constitutional law, is the co-author of various books including Armed: New Perspectives on Gun Control (2001), the essay on the Second Amendment that appears in the Encyclopedia of the American Constitution and articles appearing in law reviews and criminology journals, including the leading law review article on the Second Amendment, Handgun Prohibition and the Original Understanding of the Second Amendment, "82 Michigan Law Review 204" (1983). As a lawyer he has litigated cases involving gun rights.

This article was published in the February / March 2004 issue of "Handguns" magazine.

D. B. Kates, How Banning Guns Promotes Mass Murder, "Handguns", February / March 2004, p. 20-21.

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