In the 20th century, far more people were murdered by genocidal governments than by armed criminals.
According to gun prohibitionists, Europe is much safer than the United States, because Europe has stricter gun control. In fact, the historical record shows that excessive gun control (as in Europe) is about a hundred times more deadly than “insufficient” gun control (as, supposedly, in the U.S.). While a lone criminal with a gun can be very dangerous, a criminal government with a disarmed population is the deadliest thing on Earth.
Let’s start with the data. If U.S. gun homicide rates had been as low as European rates in the 20th century, how many lives might have been saved? According to a 2018 article published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, in 1990—a bad year for violent crime in the United States—the age-adjusted U.S. firearms homicide rate was 5.57 per 100,000 population. That same year, the rate in Western Europe was 0.53 and the rate in Eastern Europe was 1.31, giving us a European average of 0.92.
The difference between the European rate and the American rate is 4.65 per 100,000. Since the U.S. population in 1990 was nearly 249 million, these data indicate that the U.S. had 11,785 more firearms homicides that year than it would have had if the rate had been as low as it was in Europe. If we apply the estimate of 4.65 additional gun homicides per 100,000 population to every year of the 20th century, taking into account changes in the U.S. population, we find that the United States had 745,162 more firearms homicides than it would have had under the European average.
For the sake of argument, we’ll assume that every excess American gun homicide would not have been a homicide if the United States had adopted European-style gun control. That is, we’ll assume that other lethal means would not have been substituted for firearms. We also won’t consider that many American gun homicides are justifiable self-defense. In other words, when a would-be killer is shot by a law enforcement officer or a citizen, we’ll consider the criminal’s death to be just as bad as the death of an innocent victim.
Finally, we’ll ignore the extensive evidence that nonfatal defensive firearm use often prevents homicides and other crimes.
With the above assumptions, the failure to adopt European-style gun control would be responsible for almost three-quarters of a million excess deaths in the United States in the last century. That is a very large number. It is, however, two orders of magnitude smaller than the number of Europeans killed by governments during the same period.
International homicide statistics usually only count murders by individuals or small groups. A serial killer may murder two dozen people over the course of many years. A mass shooter may murder dozens at once. Those who use explosives or arson sometimes kill even more. But even in the aggregate, individual criminals or criminal gangs perpetrate vastly less homicide than do criminal governments.
In Europe in the 20th century, governments killed about 87.1 million victims, according to research by the late University of Hawaii political scientist R.J. Rummel. That figure does not include combat deaths, such as in World War I or II. It includes only the murder of civilians, from 61.9 million killed by the Soviet Union to 20.9 million killed by Germany. Over the long run, one’s risk of being murdered is much lower in the United States than in Europe. It’s no surprise that migration between the two has always been very heavily in one direction!
I am alive to write this article because my Jewish German and Lithuanian ancestors migrated to the United States in the 19th century. By doing so, they increased their risk of being shot by an individual criminal but drastically reduced their risk of being murdered by a criminal government. As we all well know, those risks did materialize in Germany (under the Nazis and the Communists) and in Lithuania (under the czars, the Nazis, and the Communists). Because governments are so much more effective at killing than are individual criminals—even looking at all individual criminals combined—the United States was much safer than Europe in the 20th century.
Rummel found that the less free the government, the more likely it is to perpetrate domestic mass murder. Totalitarian regimes perpetrate by far the most; authoritarian regimes less so; and democratic ones least of all. Indeed, no democratic government has committed large-scale murder against a population that was able to vote.
If you could be sure that a given government would forever be democratic, there would be no need for arms to resist a possible domestic dictatorship. Unfortunately, certainty on that score is impossible. The list of nations to have maintained both independence and free government at all times since 1900 is short: Australia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, and the United States. That’s just seven nations out of 196 worldwide.
Only a foolish version of American exceptionalism would imagine that the United States has been granted permanent immunity from the dangers of tyranny. Democracy was founded in Greece, yet that country has succumbed to dictatorship many times. Germany in 1900 was a progressive democracy and one of the most tolerant places in the world for Jews; a lot can change in a few decades.
According to gun prohibitionists, armed victims cannot meaningfully resist a murderous dictatorship with weapons of war at its disposal. The dictators who do the murdering think just the opposite.
In 1942, Adolf Hitler explained the necessity of disarming his victims: “The most foolish mistake we could possibly make would be to allow the subjugated races to possess arms. History shows that all conquerors who have allowed their subjugated races to carry arms have prepared their own downfall by so doing. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that the supply of arms to the underdogs is a sine qua non for the overthrow of any sovereignty. So let’s not have any native militia or native police.”
Tyrants past and present have come from virtually every continent and ethnic background. Their ideologies have varied, but they are united by a number of common practices. They do not allow freedom of the press or an independent court system. They attempt to bring religion under state control. And they claim for themselves a monopoly of force. Search the history of the world, from ancient times to the present, and you will not find many tyrants who deviated from the principle that the state must be stronger than the people.
Mass shootings by criminal governments occur predominantly in gun-free zones—places where the population has been disarmed. As soon as the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union began on June 22, 1941, special S.S. units called Einsatzgruppen began assembling all the Jews or Gypsies from a village and marching them out of town. The victims could then be easily machine-gunned at once. Within a year, just 3,000 Einsatzgruppen, aided by a few thousand helpers from the German police and military, had murdered about 1 million people.
Regime change is difficult once a tyrant has taken power, as today’s China and Cuba illustrate. So as an anti-tyranny tool, widespread citizen arms ownership works most effectively when it deters tyranny in the first place. Among the reasons there was no Holocaust in Switzerland was that the people there were heavily armed and organized in a very well-regulated militia. The German military almost certainly could have conquered its uncooperative neighbor to the south. Yet because of the costs that the Swiss militia would inflict on the Wehrmacht, Hitler never had the nerve to mount an invasion.
Even after mass murders have already begun, victims who obtain guns can save lives. During the Holocaust, armed Jews caused the Nazis much trouble—in the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising during Passover 1943 as well as in many lesser-known actions. The Nazi extermination camps of Sobibor and Treblinka were shut down forever because prisoners stole guns from the guards and led mass revolts. The Bielski commando unit in the forests of Belarus grew to 149 armed fighters and saved a thousand more Jews.
During World War I, when the government of the Ottoman Empire began murdering Christians, hundreds of thousands of lives were saved by armed resistance—which relied on guns that the Christians had secreted in defiance of confiscation orders.
“The gun has been called the great equalizer, meaning that a small person with a gun is equal to a large person,” observed then–California Gov. Ronald Reagan in a 1975 article for Guns and Ammo, “but it is a great equalizer in another way, too. It ensures that the people are the equal of their government whenever that government forgets that it is servant and not master of the governed.”
As the last century demonstrates, the short-term risks of a well-armed civilian population are far less than the long-term risks of a government that is stronger than the people.