ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) — An Alaska Republican and most senior member of the U.S. House argued against gun control by wondering how many Jewish people "were put in the ovens" because they were not armed.
U.S. Rep. Don Young, who has a history of off-the-cuff remarks that can draw criticism, made the comments at a meeting last week in the state capital of Juneau when responding to a question about what the federal government and cities can do to stop school shootings.
"How many millions of people were shot and killed because they were unarmed?" Young, 84, said at a meeting of the Alaska Municipal League, a lobbying group for local communities. "Fifty million in Russia because their citizens weren't armed. How many Jews were put into the ovens because they were unarmed?"
The comments were "taken entirely out of context," Young spokeswoman Murphy McCollough said in an email to The Associated Press on Wednesday.
"He was referencing the fact that when Hitler confiscated firearms from Jewish Germans, those communities were less able to defend themselves," she 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."
Jewish groups denounced the remarks.
"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," the Anti-Defamation League said in a statement Wednesday.
Young showed a "tremendous lack" of understanding of the history of the Holocaust and how the Nazis treated Jewish people, said rabbi Michael Oblath with Congregation Beth Sholom in Anchorage, the state's oldest and largest synagogue.
"It's misleading, it's misrepresentative of the events, and I think it's cold," Oblath said.
The Alaska Democratic Party's executive director said the comments show it's time for residents to vote out Young. The longtime lawmaker is rarely in danger of being unseated in the heavily Republican state.
"Don Young continues to show he is completely divorced from reality," Jay Parmley said.
Young wasn't the first House Republican to face criticism for comments made after 17 students were killed at a high school in Parkland, Florida.
U.S. Rep. Claudia Tenney of New York said on a radio program last week that "many" people who commit mass murder turn out to be Democrats, without offering evidence.
Young's comments emerged when Dimitri Shein, a Democrat, posted video of the lawmaker's response to his question on YouTube.
Young intimated the violent nature of video games might play a role in gun violence. A former schoolteacher, he said kids brought guns to schools 40 years ago "and they didn't shoot anybody."
"Something's happened, it's easy to blame an object," Young said. "Why don't we look at the mental concept and the family structure" as he noted that he supports arming teachers.
Young, who was first elected in 1973, ensures civility in the U.S. House after receiving a largely ceremonial title earlier this year that's given to the longest-serving member of the chamber.
He has faced blowback for other remarks.
A few years ago, he had to apologize for using a racial epithet when referring to Hispanic migrant workers and also backtracked when he said a female colleague "doesn't know a damn thing what she's talking about."
His staff had to apologize in 2014 after he spoke at an Alaska high school a day after a student's suicide. When asked what his office was doing to combat the state's high suicide rate, he stunned the audience by saying suicide showed a lack of support from family and friends.