Empty-Barrel Gun Policies

A legacy of nonsense from Clinton, Blair, and the Left.

By Dave Kopel, Dr. Paul Gallant, & Dr. Joanne Eisen of the Independence Institute

National Review Online, 1/22/01 10:30 a.m. More by Kopel on gun control in Great Britain.

At a January 8, 2001 farewell tribute from the AFL-CIO, President Clinton offered advice to his party for regaining Congress in the next election. In doing so, he made a stunning revelation about the political clout of American gun owners.

Union members who had been expected to vote Democrat in the presidential election, it seems, were frightened by the prospect of losing their guns should Al Gore win. That crucial swing vote cost Al Gore the election.

According to the New York Daily News, Clinton "blamed himself for failing to make the case that tougher gun-control laws aimed at combating crime posed no threat to sportsmen." He noted that, despite New York's tough licensing laws, "there's lots of sporting clubs and nobody's missed a day in the woods in a hunting season; nobody's missed a single sports shooting event."

Clinton's statement was nonsense. New York City's gun laws have nearly destroyed the shooting sports — such as indoor target shooting — for all but a few of the City's residents. The extensive paperwork, long waits, and high fees that New Yorkers throughout the state must endure to comply with the state's Sullivan Act — a 1911 handgun licensing law originally aimed at Jewish and Italian immigrants — depresses participation in all handgun sports far below normal levels.

Yet, even while claiming that severe gun-control laws do not harm sport shooting, Clinton conspicuously avoided the most important reason why Americans refuse to surrender their right to firearm ownership: self-defense. Most gun owners do not want to imitate Clinton's New York utopia, where it is nearly impossible to obtain a permit to carry a handgun for lawful protection because the state law delegates nearly limitless discretion to local bureaucrats. (For details, see Susan Novak's excellent article, "Why the New York State System for Obtaining a License to Carry a Concealed Weapon is Unconstitutional," from the Fordham Urban Law Journal.)

Added Clinton: "I regret that I have not been more persuasive, because I came out of that [gun] culture." In the United States, even politicians like Clinton and Gore who work assiduously to disarm the populace must proclaim their fidelity to the American gun culture.

In Great Britain, it's a different story. For years, British gun control laws have become ever more severe, and every civilian handgun in the nation has been confiscated. And while about 40% of American households tell pollsters that they own guns, compare that figure to only 4% in Great Britain. (The true ownership rates in both countries are probably higher, since some gun owners are reluctant to give personal information to people on the telephone.) The confiscation of handguns, as well as the registration and regulations which set the stage for confiscation, were explicitly aimed at preventing the development of an American-style "gun culture."

And the British plan succeeded. There isn't a large American-style gun culture in England. America's gun culture is comprised of law-abiding, hard-working, family-oriented people. In stark contrast, Great Britain's emerging gun culture consists of armed criminals, and of police "deploying the level of force appropriate to the threat."

Signs of the new British gun culture are everywhere. According to the December 31, 2000 edition of the Guardian Unlimited, "gun crime in Britain is soaring to record levels: executions, woundings and related incidents in the past year are set to be the highest ever…. The number of armed operations by police is also at a record level." And on January 11, 2001, the Guardian Unlimited reported that "the use of handguns in crime in England and Wales reached its highest level for seven years in 1999-2000". In 2000 alone, it jumped 37% from the previous year. How can this be, when a ban on private ownership of handguns — promising to reduce violent crime — became law in November 1997 under what was characterized as "the toughest gun control laws in the world"? (The British proponents of the new gun law were exaggerating a little. Nicolai Ceausescu's Communist dictatorship in Rumania actually had tougher laws, until it was overthrown.

Britain's new gun-culture has drastically and irrevocably transformed the face of law enforcement there. From 1829, when Sir Robert Peel re-organized the London metropolitan police force, and introduced "policing by consent," the British have been proud that their police do not carry firearms. Until now, armed police officers have been deployed on mainland Britain for only a few specific purposes: to carry out diplomatic duties, to deal with armed robberies or sieges, and to meet terrorist threats.

But on October 23, 2000, the Guardian Unlimited disclosed that "routine armed foot patrols are now being operated in Nottingham — the first time this has happened on the streets of mainland Britain" — signaling "a further sign of a growing gun culture...a gun culture out of control."

Stated Ann Widdecombe, Great Britain's shadow home secretary (the opposition party's counterpart to the head of the Home Office, which incorporates functions similar to the U.S. Department of Justice): "We have now reached a situation where police officers need to carry guns just to do their job." Some believe that British police may be routinely armed within 10 years. Their firearms are worn in open view, "a tactic intended to instill confidence in the public and act as a visible deterrent to criminals."

So much for the tradition of Bobbies (named for "Bobbie" Peel), carrying only a truncheon and handcuffs.

Lamented one senior police officer: "Arming officers could lead to a dangerous spiral of violence. If the police arm themselves, the criminals will stay a step ahead by obtaining bigger and better weapons. We could be heading for the sort of problems they have in America." Actually, the British would be better off if they had America's problems instead of the ones created by the British government; Britain's overall violent crime rate is higher than the American rate. In previous generations, Britain had a long-standing tradition of sporting gun use, and a long-standing tradition that both the police and the criminals would eschew guns. But now, one third of all British criminals under the age of 25 "has access" to a firearm.

Delroy Brown, a community leader in a district which is racially mixed but where most of the recent violence has involved black youths, expressed different concerns. Said Brown, "this marks the paramilitarisation of the police. If they are armed, within five years you will see a disproportionate number of black youths being killed by mainly white officers." With national elections looming this spring, and the fate of Prime Minister Blair hanging in the balance, crime control is certain to be a major issue. On January 9, 2001, Blair announced a 10-year government plan to tackle crime. According to Home Secretary Jack Straw, because of "underlying economic and demographic pressures, over the next 3 years...we will have to work harder than ever to reduce the levels of crime."

Jack Straw's statement indirectly puts the blame on factors such as immigration and the unemployment rate — which conveniently ignores the Blair government's role in deliberately destroying a law-abiding gun culture, and thereby fostering a criminal gun culture.

(Americans may recognize "Jackstraw" as the subject of a Grateful Dead song. The original Jack Straw teamed with Wat Tyler in 1381 to lead a peasant and labor rebellion against Britain's King Richard II. The King met with the rebels, agreed to most of their demands, and once they dispersed, had them murdered piecemeal. "Jackstraw" later came to mean a man without property, worth, or influence. Today's Home Secretary Jack Straw appears to have less in common with his namesake than with Richard II.) The gullibility of our British cousins in swallowing the empty promises of politicians like Tony Blair and Jack Straw — greater safety through the limitation of civil liberties — remains a mystery.

One measure proposed by the Home Office is the hotly contested Criminal Justice (Mode of Trial) Bill. If enacted, this legislation would restrict the right of defendants charged with certain offenses to choose whether their case is heard by a judge or a jury. In other words, the bill ensures that the criminal-justice process would be entirely in the hands of government employees, with no checks or balances from the people.

And on October 4, 2000, Home Office Minister Charles Clarke unveiled a new package of firearm controls. Among these proposals are a national database of legal gun owners in Great Britain. The database will contain the names and addresses of all licensed rifle and shotgun holders (although, such information already exists in the licensing records of local police departments). The real value of this "new" and duplicative gun registry would appear to lie in providing political brownie points to its proponents. Gun crime is going up, so the government responds by making another list of law-abiding gun owners. Maybe if crime rises some more, the government will make a third list.

In the meantime, guns flood into Great Britain from the international black market, driven and funded by the demands of Britain's new gun culture. It has been estimated that the number of illegally possessed firearms in Great Britain has doubled over the past 4 years, and has now reached the three million figure.

A January 15, 2001 item from The Independent, entitled "Police Move to Tackle Huge Rise in Gun Crime," noted that "for the past 11 months, a team of officers from the National Criminal Intelligence Service has compiled details of weapons and ammunition seized by the police and has concluded that the scale of Britain's black market in firearms is 'far higher than anybody had previously thought.'"

British security services revealed that, "as well as eastern Europe, America is also a foreign source of illegal weapons." Although it is impossible to know with certainty the number of guns smuggled into Great Britain, large consignments are being "brought across the Atlantic by private yachts and dropped into the sea off the Kent coast."

While a no-questions-asked gun-turn-in amnesty is part of Tony Blair's anti-crime package, it's likely that hardly any owners of the 3 million illegally possessed guns will take advantage of it.

Meanwhile, back in the United States, Democratic leaders attempting to woo back union and rural voters continue to promise that "sporting" and "hunting" firearms will remain inviolate. British gun owners in previous decades received similar empty promises. Probably some of the British politicians in the 1920s and 1960s who pushed gun control were sincere in not wanting to destroy the shooting sports. But these politicians naively set the stage for today's British confiscation fiats.

It ought to be clear that many of the "sort of problems" we Americans face derive from the efforts of the firearm prohibitionists to create a society of unarmed victims. And if they ever succeed in removing self-defense from the firearm equation, we can be certain of one thing: America will indeed go down the British path as we are perennially exhorted to do — and straight into the "new" British kind of gun culture.

Britain's gun policies have succeeded marvelously in ensuring that criminals do not obtain firearms lawfully. Only an infinitesimal number of legally-owned British guns are ever used in a crime. But these effective laws appear to be very ineffective in preventing criminals from obtaining guns.

Commented Home Office Minister Charles Clarke about the new British anti-crime plan: "Our firearms controls are already among the strongest in the world, and these new proposals will increase their effectiveness." That's true. Provided, of course, that Great Britain's criminals decide to start obeying these newest regulations.

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