The British Gun Closet

Slowly, the country is learning the hard way.

By Dave Kopel

National Review Online. May 14, 2003, 10:20 a.m. More by Kopel on British gun control.

LONDON— When I arrived in London, I expected to find a very depressing situation for gun rights, as the formerly robust British right-to-arms is nearing extinction. Yet there are signs that the public is waking up to the failure of gun prohibition.

To be sure, the present circumstances in Britain are awful. A world-class British rifle shooter explained to me that he never tells ordinary people that he is a marksman, for fear of their reaction. British shooters today, like homosexuals in Oklahoma in 1950, feel so intimidated by the hostility of the surrounding culture that they must be careful not to expose themselves, except to known members of their minority group.

The British government is more abusive than ever to people who use force for lawful protection, and as accommodating as ever to violent criminals. The news that two Britons carried out a terror bombing in Israel has not resulted in calls from the government or from the "posh," non-tabloid press for cracking down on the clerics who incite terrorism. The tabloid Express takes a harder line. The bombers grew up in England in a secular, English-speaking, integrated environment, but then fell under the influence of hateful clerics in England, so the connection between terrorist incitement and terrorist action is clear enough. The civil-liberties merits of tolerating terrorist clerics is far outweighed by the massive loss of liberty for non-terrorist citizens that would follow the nearly inevitable advent of jihad bombings in Great Britain.

Non-terrorist criminals also continue to get an easy ride from the government. Some teenagers who perpetrated an unarmed gang homicide on a random stranger were last week sentenced to terms of 2-4 years. The same week, reports the Evening Standard(4/29), "An evil young killer who stabbed a complete stranger through the ear with a hunting knife" was sentenced to seven years in prison. Meanwhile, the government is introducing a five-year mandatory minimum for carrying a gun illegally. So, merely carrying a gun merits a sentence in the same range as murdering someone.

Using force to resist a crime seems to trouble the government a great deal. A businessman who hit a pair of burglars with a brick was prosecuted and called "an unmitigated thug" by the government (Daily Mail, 5/1). Yet the jury acquitted the victim, since British jurors do retain the right to acquit a morally innocent defendant who has technically violated the law.

A masked man with a cape and a mask who was on his way to a costume party intervened to save someone who was being beaten by a gang of thugs. The local police spokesman was very unhappy with the man's altruism, since only the police are supposed to resist criminals (Daily Mail, 5/3).

A gun "amnesty" has resulted in the surrender of about 25,000 arms, and was proclaimed a great triumph by the government. Civil-libertarian Stephen Robinson noted in the Telegraph: "The police were strangely reluctant to specify how many of the guns were handed over in inner city areas, fueling the suspicion that many of the weapons were family heirlooms. . . . Many appear to have been handed in by the elderly and law-abiding who fear becoming criminalized in a society in which private gun ownership is slowly being outlawed."

The gun-prohibition lobbies and their many government and media allies, not sated by the near-destruction of mainstream firearms sports, are now setting their sights on air guns and replica firearms. Home Minister David Blunkett wants to ban public possession, whereas London mayor Ken Livingston is pushing total prohibition of replica guns. A teacher was fired for allowing a student to bring a replica gun to school as part of a science exhibit.

Overall, Britain now suffers from a higher violent crime rate than the U.S., and has reverted to its medieval status of being substantially more dangerous than most of the European continent. (Continental gun laws are generally more repressive than in the U.S., but more liberal than in England.) The lesson: More gun bans, more violent crime.

The 1997 extermination of Britain's pitiful minority of handgun target shooters did not directly increase crime, since existing laws made it impossible for a lawful handgun owner (or any other lawful gun owner) to use a firearm for self-defense. Rather, the handgun confiscation of 1997 was the continuation of a trend that began in the 1950s that has resulted in the destruction of the law-abiding gun culture, and the suppression of every form of non-government use of force against criminals. As a result, criminal violence and a criminal gun culture are 50 times more prevalent than they were in the early 20th century, when there were no antigun laws, and no laws against the use of reasonable force against violent criminals.

And yet there are signs that the public is finally awakening to the fact that the gun-prohibition movement can deliver hatred and repression, but comes up very short on public safety. The 1997 handgun ban is perceived by many as a failure, as gun crime has risen substantially since then.

An April 29 poll in the Birmingham Post reported that 68 percent of Britons believe it should be legal for householders to shoot a burglar or other criminal invader. Twenty-two percent of Britons said that they would carry a handgun for protection, if they legally could. Only 7 percent of Londoners would exercise that choice compared with 55 percent in Yorkshire.

Although many recognize the failure of gun control, this does not mean that they are against licensing, registration, and background checks. But it does mean that Britons are beginning to understand that a nation without legal guns is a nation at the mercy of gangs and criminals.

Peter Hitchens has just come out with a major new book, A Brief History of Crime: The Decline of Order, Justice, and Liberty in England. Hitchens, a columnist for the Sunday Mail, argues that British governments have helped cause the tremendous increase in crime over past decades by refusing to punish criminals strictly, and by making excuses for criminals. As crime has soared, the government has responded by cracking down on the law-abiding population and on civil liberties. The right to silence has been abolished, the right to jury trial has been restricted, surveillance cameras are pervasive, and wiretaps and e-mail intercepts are skyrocketing. Hitchens devotes a chapter to the failed campaign against guns, explaining how the deprivation of the means of self-defense causes more crime.

Of course, there's a long way to go between the beginning of popular recognition of a problem and the repeal of the government policies that caused the problem. But the British do appear to be making the tentative first steps in the right direction, and that's a notable change from last decade.

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