Why Can't We Be like France? How the Right to Bear Arms Got Left out of the Declaration of Rights and How Gun Registration Was Decreed Just in Time for the Nazi Occupation

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IV. 1935: PRIME MINISTER PIERRE LAVAL DECREES FIREARM REGISTRATION

Having no historical recognition of a fundamental right to keep and bear arms, it would not be difficult for the French government to require that firearms be registered, which would make it easier to confiscate them. Prime Minister Pierre Laval decreed such a law in 1935, just five years before he would become the chief collaborator with Nazi Germany of occupied France. (180) The firearm registration records would be available to the French police who administered Nazi occupation policies, including the death penalty for possession of firearms. (181)

France in the mid-1930s experienced conflict between political factions and the collapse of governments. (182) The most volatile disturbances rocked Paris on February 6, 1934, in which police and Mobile Guards opened fire on civilians, killing sixteen. (183) One policeman was killed. (184) To politicians, clamping down on civilian gun ownership appeared to be a remedy.

On June 8, 1935, the Chamber of Deputies passed an enabling act that granted Prime Minister Pierre Laval, whose cabinet included moderates and Radical-Socialists, the power to rule by decree-law. (185) In opposition to rightist groups such as the Croix de Feu (Cross of Fire), the Radicals joined with the Socialists and Communists in the Front Populaire. (186) By fall, the leftist press warned that the Croix de Feu was planning to seize power, seeking to alarm the Radical party conference meeting held from October 24-27. (187) To allay that fear, the government decreed the strengthening of the game mobile mandated that authorities be notified of public meetings and restricted firearm possession. (188)

The Laval law decree (decret-lois) was proclaimed on October 23, 1935, by the Cabinet without legislative action under the enabling act of June 8. (189) Introduced by the previous government, it was reported by Chauvin as a bill concerning demonstrations on public streets, and commerce, import and possession of arms. (190) Leon Berard, Minister of Justice, and Joseph Paganon, Minister of the Interior, formally proposed the law. (191)

The decree defined and restricted "war" weapons, restricted importation of firearms, extended recordkeeping requirements by firearms manufacturers and dealers, including the keeping of daily registers, and prohibited sale of firearms by flea market vendors. (192) Its most radical provisions required registration of firearm owners and punished violators without regard to any evil intent. Specifically, Article 9 stated:

   Each person in possession of a firearm at the enactment of the
   present decree must make a declaration of it to the prefect or the
   sub-prefect of the place of his residence within the time limit of
   one month.

   Anyone after the enactment of the present decree who receives a
   firearm must make a declaration of it to the prefect or the
   sub-prefect of the place of his residence within the time limit of
   8 days.

   Receipts of the declarations referenced in the two previous
   paragraphs will be delivered to the concerned parties.

   Each violation of the requirements of the first two paragraphs of
   the present article shall be punishable by a fine of 100 to 1,000
   Francs. The court in addition will order the forfeiture of the
   weapon....

   Failure to comply with this order shall be punishable with
   imprisonment of from six months to two years.... (193)

However, the registration requirement did not apply to hunting guns or to historic or collectable firearms. (194)

It was prominently publicized that the decree requires anyone in possession of arms to declare his place of residency to the prefect or his assistant. (195) The deadline for registration of arms was one month, expiring on November 24, 1935. (196)

Regulations to implement the above decree were promulgated on November 22, 1935. (197) Registration of a firearm included one's name, date and place of birth, nationality, profession, domicile, and description of the firearm-type, caliber, manufacturer, and serial number if it existed. …