Rep. Don Young, an Alaska Republican who is the longest-serving member of the House of Representatives, recently argued against gun control to constituents by suggesting that Jews could have avoided perishing in the Holocaust if they had armed themselves.
“How many millions of people were shot and killed because they were unarmed?” Young said to the Alaska Municipal League in Juneau last week, according to a recording published Tuesday by Alaska Public Media. “Fifty million in Russia because their citizens weren’t armed. How many Jews were put into the ovens because they were unarmed?”
The claim that privately owned guns might have dissuaded the Nazi regime from genocide is a thinly founded idea with a long pedigree among supporters of gun rights. The Anti-Defamation League has tracked a rise since at least 2013 in rhetoric suggesting that guns could have stopped or at least slowed the Holocaust.
In one recent example, Housing and Urban Development Secretary Ben Carson said in 2015, when he was a presidential candidate, that “the likelihood of Hitler being able to accomplish his goals would have been greatly diminished if the people had been armed.”
The ADL said Wednesday in response to Young’s remarks that it is “offensive for anyone to manipulate the history of the Holocaust to score political points.”
“It is mind-bending to suggest that personal firearms in the hands of the small number of Germany’s Jews (about 214,000 remaining in Germany in 1938) could have stopped the totalitarian onslaught of Nazi Germany when the armies of Poland, France, Belgium and numerous other countries were overwhelmed by the Third Reich,” said Jonathan Greenblatt, the group’s chief executive, in a statement to The Washington Post.
Young’s office issued a statement Wednesday saying that the remark “has been taken entirely out of context.”
“He was referencing the fact that when Hitler confiscated firearms from Jewish Germans, those communities were less able to defend themselves,” the statement said. “He was not implying that an armed Jewish population would have been able to prevent the horrors of the Holocaust, but his intended message is that disarming citizens can have detrimental consequences. A defenseless people are left up to the mercy of its leaders.”
It continued: “In today’s society, people are desensitized to extreme violence which the Congressman is very concerned about. Our children are surrounded by images of violence in social media, films and throughout the Internet which has led to an alarming societal disconnect and isolation. Congressman Young remains committed to developing new solutions to bring our communities together and strengthen mental health services to address these issues facing our young people.”
Young, first elected in 1972, has gotten himself in trouble with his comments on multiple occasions. In 2013, he drew a rebuke from House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) when he described immigrant farmworkers as “wetbacks” in a radio interview. At a 2014 meeting with high school students, he suggested — days after a classmate had committed suicide — that a lack of support from friends and family were to blame. In a community meeting shortly afterward, he blamed “largesse from the government” for driving a high suicide rate in his home state and criticized the students for challenging him during the appearance at their high school.
On Capitol Hill, Young is tolerated — and occasionally celebrated — as a crusty relic from another era of politics.
Young is “dean of the House,” an honorary title reserved for the longest-serving House member. He succeeded John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), who resigned in December after nearly 53 years in office. Upon his selection as dean in January, Young was recognized on the House floor last month by House Speaker Paul D. Ryan (R-Wis.) and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
“As we all know, Don Young is not someone to let anything — or anyone — get in his way,” Ryan said of Young. “He can be direct, but you always know where he stands on things, or really, where you stand with him.”
His brusque reputation, however, hasn’t stopped colleagues from calling Young out for his Holocaust remarks.
Rep. Nita M. Lowey (D-N.Y.), who is Jewish, tweeted her demand that Young apologize, calling the comment “disgusting & reprehensible, not to mention one of the dumbest things I have ever heard.”