On Gun Control In Britain



It’s difficult at the moment to know precisely how seriously to take Nigel Farage’s public pronouncements. In a matter of days he has managed to offend a great number of people by suggesting that once you adjust for maternity leave, women working in finance have at least a level playing field with (if not an easier time overall than) men; he appeared to prevaricate when confronted with another loony UKIP local councillor, this one publicly attributing the UK’s recent bad weather to the coalition government’s legalisation of gay marriage; and he publicly disowned the 2010 UKIP manifesto, which he personally helped to launch.

All of this is rather unfortunate, because in many ways Nigel Farage remains one of the most principled and straightforward politicians in Britain today. Aside from some heavy-handed and paternalistic conservative attitudes to social issues such as gay marriage and an excessive obsession with immigration restrictions, the policies currently espoused by UKIP are ones which would appeal to many a libertarian-minded voter grown disenchanted with the Tories under David Cameron – myself included. Therefore, I hope and trust that the PR wobbles of this week will soon be behind him.

But more importantly, I hope that the current furore does not drown out a more important debate that Farage has initiated – whether or not to relax Britain’s stringent gun control laws and relax the blanket ban on handguns. Farage is of the opinion that to do so is right in accordance with conservative principle, with individual liberty and with common sense.

The Guardian reports:

Asked about gun controls, Farage said: “I think proper gun licensing is something we’ve done in this country responsibly and well for a long time, and I think the kneejerk legislation that Blair brought in that meant that the British Olympic pistol team have to go to France to even practise was just crackers.

“If you criminalise handguns then only the criminals carry the guns. It’s really interesting that since Blair brought that piece of law in, gun crime doubled in the next five years in this country.”

“I think that we need a proper gun licensing system, which to a large extent I think we already have, and I think the ban on handguns is ludicrous.”

The initial arguments brought to bear against Farage are not terribly convincing:

Ian Mearns, Labour MP for Gateshead, said the comments were an example of “how extremely dangerous Ukip are”.

“Families facing a cost-of-living crisis will find it bizarre that one of Nigel Farage’s priorities would be to relax Britain’s tough gun controls,” he added.

So we are told that the policy is “dangerous”, and then fed the old line that the British public believe that politicians can and should only ever focus on one issue at the time, and that the economy must crowd out everything else. When someone leads off with the “why aren’t we focusing on something else?” argument, they generally don’t have much else in the way of persuasive arguments.

As a libertarian-minded voter, given a blank slate and in an ideal world I would like to see the blanket bans on handguns in the UK repealed. While recognising that Britain is very different culturally to America on this issue, where the Second Amendment enshrines the right to bear arms very clearly, I believe that our country (at least the people, if not our government) do also place great value on the freedom to defend oneself with any force necessary if required. The strength of public feeling in the Tony Martin case rather proves my point, no matter how much gun control advocates might desire to wish it away.

Where we differ more substantially is the fact that in America, the Constitution makes clear that the right of the people to bear arms shall not be infringed not only for reasons of protection and self-defence against personal violence, but also against oppression by the government. In Britain, where our rights are granted to us by the government and it is our lot to bow and scrape and be thankful for what we are given by way of freedoms, this is clearly not the case. The government is not ours; rather, it belongs to Her Majesty. This may seem like a quibbling detail, but when looking at issues of civil rights and liberties it is an important one.

As a general principle, I don’t think it should be the government’s business to ban or to allow small arms, or to do many other things. I would be quite happy if the government could content itself with competently undertaking its core functions of defending the nation, protecting property rights, providing law and order and providing a framework for other institutions to deliver much of what currently falls under the welfare state. I have sufficient belief in the goodness of human nature to think that, if properly guided and harnessed, this might be achievable.

However, I also recognise that this is not the seventeenth century, and I am not a stockinged, bewigged colonist in the New World. We do not live in a time of attempting bold new methods of self governance – or bold new methods of doing anything at all, and there is little desire among the public to become the kind of country where such experimentation takes place. And this is where conservative pragmatism comes into play. On the topic of gun control specifically in the UK, I cannot support Nigel Farage’s belief that gun control laws should be repealed.

Guns are not plentiful in the UK as they are in the United States. Making it legal for average members of the public to own firearms again would initially empower those people, but there would be a gradual and inexorable drift of firearms from law-abiding citizens to active criminals. Like almost anything, if you are criminally minded and you want to lay your hands on a gun, you can do it if you invest time making the right connections. But it is difficult to do unless you already have those links with the criminal world, and so guns are not purchased in the UK on a whim, or by ordinary folk for use in a moment of high passion – the supply is small and in the hands of professional criminals, and therefore it simply takes too long for someone not in the know to make the purchase. Why expand the supply and start to make it exponentially easier?

In the United States, the case is very different. Guns are a dime a dozen, and any blanket ban on firearms in America, as well as being grossly unconstitutional, would leave law-abiding citizens defenceless in a country where almost every criminal has ready access to a gun. In short, banning guns in the United States would put the population at risk while the population of the United Kingdom would be more endangered by the legalisation of firearms.

I freely admit that a bulk of conservatism and libertarian opinion may differ with me on this issue. Indeed, The Commentator last year revealed something of the depth of feeling on the repeal-gun-control side:

The choices include term limits for Prime Ministers, a flat tax, a law to encourage the ‘greening’ of public spaces and the repealing of Britain’s hand gun ban. Following the Dunblane massacre in 1996, in which 16 schoolchildren were killed, Parliament passed The Firearms Act of 1997, which essentially banned handguns for the atrocity.

But Britons seem unconvinced by the law. The proposer, known as “Colliemum” asked, “…why should only criminals be ‘allowed’ to possess guns and shoot unarmed, defenceless citizens and police officers?”

While the poll continues, so far over 80 percent of the 11,000+ respondents have told the Telegraph that they want to see the handgun ban repealed.

Unscientific, yes. But also highly emphatic.

I have called often and loudly for a constitutional convention for the United Kingdom, to decide once and for all the powers we are willing to give to the government and those which we insist on keeping for ourselves, as well as to fairly and equally devolve powers to the four home nations under a federal system. Part of the output of such a convention would inevitably be a decision on whether we are happy to continue being granted our rights or having them taken away by the whim of each successive Parliament, or if we want to enshrine certain inalienable rights in a more permanent and unyielding document.

But until my call is heard and a Constitution is written and adopted, there is no document to which we British can point to say that government shall not deprive us of the right to own guns. Neither is there precedent, or a persuasive common sense argument. Ceteris parabus, just as there is no sound or legal way in which American citizens can be deprived of their right to bear arms, so there is no reason rooted in law why the British should have theirs returned.

As the American civil war drew to an end, James Russell Lowell wrote:

Among the lessons taught by the French Revolution there is none sadder or more striking than this, that you may make everything else out of the passions of men except a political system that will work, and that there is nothing so pitilessly and unconsciously cruel as sincerity formulated into dogma.

Sincerity formulated into dogma. We see this a lot today, both in Britain and America. In the United States it is manifested most obviously in the Tea Party and the demands of its more fanatical members to immediately roll back the functions of government regardless of the potential suffering of those who have come – and in many cases been encouraged – to depend on it. Pitiless yes, and often cruel too. And in Britain we see this dogmatic approach, I am sad to say, in Nigel Farage’s call to repeal the gun control laws.

When my libertarianism meets the fact of modern Britain, the conservative in me must side with the real world as I find it, and for that I do not apologise.

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