Gun Control and Genocide
Here’s why the NRA is dead wrong about gun control causing genocide. But at least they agree with human rights groups about the horrors of the military dictatorship in Guatemala.
What does America’s gun lobby have to do with the question of genocide in Guatemala? Plenty, although not for anything they did. But for the particular ideology they bring to this and almost every other case of genocide or similar violence in the twentieth century.
Today, in the United States, the gun lobby and gun manufacturers have a joint interest in both fighting gun control and encouraging Americans to buy more guns.
At the same time, gun manufacturing executives play a greater, hidden role inside the National Rifle Association that NRA leaders like to admit, as I helped established in a piece in January on this website.
The gun lobby also shares ideological ground with a small, but vocal group of gun rights activists who, like most NRA leaders and many gun industry executives, take an absolutist view of the American Second Amendment. Their ideology has two articles of faith, and each one reinforces the other. First, even the slightest form of control is likely, if not certain to result in government seizure of all firearms. And, second, gun control itself invariably leads to government tyranny, if not genocide.
That’s another reason why the gun lobby along with many gun rights activists oppose even modest gun control legislation.
And it’s also why the NRA is vehemently opposed to a U.N. Arms Trade Treaty that human rights groups like Amnesty International strongly support.
Two seemingly unconnected events recently unfolded in March more than 2,500 miles apart. On March 18, Guatemala began an historic trial against a former military dictator on charges of genocide. On March 20, Colorado governor John Hickenlooper signed landmark gun control measures in that state into law.
What does one have to do with the other? For Second Amendment absolutists, gun control and genocide, or at least the specter of government violence, are always tightly intertwined.
“This is how it starts. ==> Landmark gun bills signed in Colorado,” @Bobacheck tweeted in Wisconsin just hours after thy became Colorado law, adding hashtags including, “#NRA #2ndAmendment.”
Colorado’s new gun control laws require background checks on private gun sales, and limit magazines for semi-automatic weapons to a maximum of 15 rounds. (New York recently passed a law limiting magazines for semi-automatic weapons to seven rounds, although it may now modify the law to allow use of industry-standard 10-round magazines as long as they are not loaded with more than seven rounds; the District of Columbia limits magazines to 10 rounds.)
The Colorado legislature passed the law three months after this past December’s Newtown, Connecticut grade school tragedy, and in the wake of two more of America’s worst gun massacres over the past 13 years in the Denver suburbs at Columbine High School in 1999 and in an Aurora movie theater last summer. Many Colorado residents along with most Americans, as recent polls suggest, see such measures like background checks as an important step forward for public safety.
But for the gun lobby along with Second Amendment absolutists, the signing of Colorado’s new gun laws –which came only hours after the state’s Corrections director was shot and killed standing in the front door of his own home—is just the first sinister step toward government repression.
“#COLORADO How are they getting away with this crap? It’s coming to a town near you. We better stand, and fight this people,” tweeted @SanddraggerTees on the West Coast, one of countless gun rights absolutists who also rang the alarm just hours after the legislation became law, using the hashtags #2A for Second Amendment and #NRA.
YOUTUBE and the blogosphere have long been full of material alleging historical connections between gun control and genocide. The videos often use dramatic music, images and language, while the website prefer elaborate chart presentations to illustrate correlations and, thereby suggest causations between gun restrictions and genocidal violence.
A small group of legal scholars have also written essays, often for journals at small, accredited law schools, making similar but more substantive arguments. Two such scholars, David Hardy and David Kopel, each testified early this year before the Senate Judiciary Committee, not on genocide, but on guns and gun violence in America; the nationally televised audience watching them was not informed that some of their research has been funded by the National Rifle Association’s Civil Rights Defense Fund, as I recently reported on MSNBC.com.
Another pair of scholars, who, back in the 1990s, were among the first to assert a connection between gun control and genocide, began one of their first law review articles on the matter in a defensive tone. The language perhaps indicates how some of their peers view their arguments.
"This essay seeks to reclaim a serious argument from the lunatic fringe,” begin Daniel D. Polsby and Don B. Kates, Jr. in “Of Holocausts and Gun Control” in the Fall 1997 issue of Washington University Law Quarterly published by the law school of the same name in St. Louis. “We argue a connection exists between the restrictiveness of a country’s civilian weapons policy and its liability to commit genocide.”
One of the NRA-funded scholars who recently testified in the Senate, Kopel, teaches Advanced Constitutional Law as an adjunct professor at Denver University law school. Kopel lists a number of specific cases in his review of a book, "Lethal Laws", by Jay Simkin, Alan M. Rice and Aaron S. Zelman of the small but voluble gun rights organization, Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership.
Cases where gun control led to genocide, according to the group, allegedly include Armenia under Turkish occupation, Stalinist purges in the Soviet Union, the Holocaust led by Nazi Germany, the Cultural Revolution in China, the genocide carried out by the U.S.-backed military in Guatemala, atrocities in Uganda under Idi Amin, and the Killing Fields in Cambodia. The same group along with the NRA’s longest-standing African-American board member, Roy Innis, of the Congress for Racial Equality, also put the more recent genocide in Rwanda on the list.
In the case of Guatemala, the authors of Lethal Laws focus mainly on a time several decades before its genocidal acts occurred. Even Kopel takes issue with the authors’ claim whether repealing gun control laws in the early 1950’s might have made a difference, as most Guatemalans, he points out, were too poor to afford firearms anyway. The main thing the Lethal Laws authors seem to say about Guatemala’s genocidal acts in the early 1980s is that human rights advocacy groups like Amnesty International should have advocated for the arming of victimized populations.
Such an argument would of course violate Amnesty International’s mandate. More importantly, anyone who has ever been to, or spent any time even just reading up on Guatemala would know such an argument is patently absurd. It would have only put the nation’s surviving highlands civilians at risk of even more military reprisals.
The bloody history of Guatemala includes grotesque human-rights abuses—in spite of the fact that there were significant numbers of armed rebels. The insurgents had military weapons, but they were still not strong enough as a force to defend civilians including women and children from brigade-level and other large-unit attacks by the Army.
THE TRIAL of the former military dictator, retired General Efraín Ríos Montt, for genocide is underway in Guatemala City. A U.N. Truth Commission previously documented the wholesale annihilation of men, women and children in hundreds of ethnic Mayan villages while he led the country, calling them “acts of genocide.” The abuses were carried out with CIA assistance, as was established in 1995 by journalist and author Tim Weiner in The New York Times.
In late 1990, in The Progressive, I reported how villagers in Santiago de Atitán finally broke through their own fear of military reprisals to place the photos of hundreds of loved ones who had disappeared over the previous decade on the windows and walls of the village’s town hall. It all began with one family’s photo, and soon became a silent, collective act of defiance of military authority.
Another five years passed before Guatemala’s civil war finally ended. By then, Guatemala’s civil war had been bloodier than all the other wars in Central America combined. More than 200,000 Guatemalans were killed or disappeared. Leftist guerrillas committed some abuses, but the U.N. Truth Commission found the Guatemalan military responsible for 93 percent of the nation’s wartime abuses.
Gun control had nothing to do with it. Instead it was the state’s concentration of power by the military as an institutional that facilitated the abuses. Even as the massacres were still being carried out, military authorities began organizing civilians in villages whom they deemed as being less tainted by rebel ideology into military-controlled “strategic hamlets” or population centers. In other villages, where surviving residents were not forcibly relocated, the Army organized the males into the civil defense patrols and armed them with M1 carbine rifles.
Unlike the claims of Second Amendment scholars and activists, the same phenomenon of military power being the primary factor leading to genocide or similar acts is characteristic of state violence committed by other governments in previous eras.
“The history of gun control in Germany from the post-World War I period to the inception of World War II seems to be a history of declining, rather than increasing, gun control,” wrote Bernard E. Harcourt in the Fordham Law Review in 2004. Debunking the arguments made explicitly by NRA activists and Second Amendment scholars point by point, Harcourt concludes their claims “are not about history, nor are they about truth. These are cultural arguments.”
Other scholars looking at the Holocaust and other genocidal acts seem to agree.
“Perhaps the greatest source of power in an oppressive society in times of war is the military establishment that is identified with the authorities in charge,” wrote scholar Vahakn N. Dadrian in “The Comparative Aspects of the Armenian and Jewish Cases of Genocide: A Sociohistorical Perspective,” in the 2008 edited volume, Is the Holocaust Unique?: Perspectives on Comparative Genocide.
Now in Guatemala prosecutors are alleging that General Montt presided over military counterinsurgency efforts that targeted not armed leftist guerrillas trying to overthrow the government, but explicitly unarmed civilians suspected of supporting or even being sympathetic to the rebel cause.
“A woman was found hiding in a ditch and realizing her presence, the point man fired, killing her and two ‘chocolates,’” according to one platoon report from mid-1982 called "Operation Sofia” and obtained by the National Security Archive of George Washington University. The “chocolates” referred to two children she was protecting.
One former Army sergeant operating in the Quiché region, where many abuses were concentrated, told me during the war how his commanders justified such brutality. “The innocent pay for the sins of the guilty,” he explained, saying the innocents referred to unarmed civilians and the guilty referred to the armed guerrillas.
When the military confronted unarmed civilians, there was “a clear indifference to their status as a non-combatant civilian population,” later concluded the U.N. Truth Commission. The level of carnage in Guatemala was extreme even when compared to other bloodied nations in the region like El Salvador.
“In the majority of massacres there is evidence of multiple acts of savagery, which preceded, accompanied or occurred after the deaths of victims,” concluded the U.N. Truth Commission. “Acts such as the killing of defenseless children, often by beating them against walls or throwing them alive into pits where the corpses of adults were later thrown; the amputation of limbs; the impaling of victims; the killing of persons by covering them in petrol and burning them alive; the extraction, in the presence of others, of the viscera of victims who were still alive; the confinement of people who had been mortally tortured, in agony for days; the opening of the wombs of pregnant women, and other similarly atrocious acts.”
BUT WHEN it comes to one thing, Second Amendments scholars are closer to human rights advocates than to many American conservatives about Guatemala. Back in late 1982, President Ronald Reagan, whom many conservative Republicans still revere, met General Montt and afterward told reporters that he thought the Guatemalan dictator was getting “a bum rap” over his alleged human rights abuses.
Today’s gun lobby scholars disagree. They and other gun rights absolutists fault President Reagan for supporting gun control measures including the Brady Bill mandating background checks after his press secretary, Jim Brady, was shot and Reagan was wounded, and for later speaking out against non-sporting, high-powered weapons.
But some of the same leading Second Amendment scholars also reject Reagan’s apologies for Guatemala’s human rights record under General Rios Montt.
“Perhaps the most overlooked genocide of the twentieth century has been the Guatemalan government’s campaign against its Indian population,” wrote Kopel in 1995. One reason “may be that the Guatemalan government has been friendly to the United States.”
He’s right about that.
Frank Smyth is a freelance journalist and MSNBC Contributor. He has been covering the gun lobby since the mid-1990s, writing for publications including The Village Voice, The Washington Post and Mother Jones. He’s been covering Guatemala since the late-1980s, writing for outlets including The Progressive, The Wall Street Journal and The Texas Observer. Smyth is the author of the 1994 Human Rights Watch report released on the eve of genocide, Arming Rwanda, and of the 2010 study, "Painting the Maya Red: Military Doctrine and Speech in Guatemala’s Genocidal Acts", published by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. His clips are posted at www.franksmyth.com, and his Twitter handle is @SmythFrank .
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