Wednesday, 7 October 2015

Freedom from Firearms... A British Perspective

Tragically, America has just suffered another mass shooting leaving more of our fellow citizens grieving lost family members. Even more tragically, that sentence could stand unaltered for every week of President Obama’s second term to date. The President is visibly, understandably, commendably outraged about this, and unwilling to pretend this violence is merely coincidental or beyond our control.

Unfortunately, despite many efforts, so far he has been equally unable to do anything to stop this bloodbath. In part, this is because he has been blocked at every turn by an obstructionist Congress. But even more so, it is because those lawmakers in their turn are guided by an American gun culture that has been growing if anything stronger and less constrained even as the horrors of gun violence have been growing more terrible and tangible.

Americans – at least, a very large minority of Americans – just love our guns. But more than that, we have been taught to believe in the IDEA of our guns. Firearms in American culture aren’t piece of sporting equipment, a tool for hunting, or even a means of self-defence. They are regarded as a civil right, second only to the freedom of speech in the Bill of Rights.

The usual thing is for politicians arguing for gun control to pay deference to this idea first, before talking about how we might slightly limit this right at the margins. When I commentate on US politics, I also find myself operating within these parameters, “We’re not talking about repealing the 2nd amendment, but the Founding Fathers talked about a WELL REGULATED militia… Surely banning grenade launching machine guns from sale to toddlers would count as a reasonable regulation. That’s all we’re talking about here!”

But it’s time to come out of the closet on this. I’ve been telling a lie of omission. Because I just, in no way, regard access to deadly firearms as a right to which a free citizenry are entitled. I’ve always been vaguely uncomfortable about that belief, just on the grounds that I know you should always be wary of the impulse to take away rights that you personally don’t happen to value (hello there, male anti-abortion extremists!).

And I’ve hesitated to write about gun control issues too much in the past. Because, there’s a symphony of shouting every time this issue comes up, and what can I have to add?

Well, on reflection, I do have something to add, and I hope it might be of use to my friends back home who haven’t yet given up on the idea that we might be able to do something about this problem.

As President Obama, and many others have pointed out, the United Kingdom is one of those countries where we’ve actually changed our gun laws – most recently, as a reaction to a terrible mass shooting in Dunblane, Scotland. Death by gun is now vanishingly rare in the UK, but 100 years ago firearms were as unrestricted here as they are in America today.

If firearms are a civil right, then they are a civil right that has been deeply constrained here in the UK. And yet, I have never had the sense that British people feel that they are making any kind of sacrifice or difficult trade-off in surrendering their “right to bear arms”.

Perhaps, though, there was more to this than I know. If firearms are a right to be treasured, and if (as the NRA argues) they are vital for personal self-defence, then logically some people must feel less safe and less free for the absence of the guns.

I asked British people on Facebook and Twitter to answer the following question:

I got dozens of heated responses. By far the most common was along these lines:

So people are afraid of this idea. Very much so.

A few other common threads came through, as well:

·         Emigration: Lots of folks said they’d leave the country. I pushed back on some of these, asking them whether they would REALLY leave behind friends and family, or if that was just a knee jerk reaction. Most said on balance that it probably was a knee jerk response, but stressed that they would feel genuinely uncomfortable, and that was not the sort of country in which they wanted to live.
·         Confusion: Loads of people wondered why on earth such a thing could ever happen. “No one wants this,” someone wrote. There was a general sense of bafflement as to why such a thing would ever be contemplated, even as a hypothetical question.
·         Crime Escalation: Several people mentioned that they either live in “dodgy neighbourhoods” or have been the target of crime before, and the prospect of the bad guys they know having access to weapons was terrifying. One friend wrote, “My home in Brixton would be a scene from a nightmare. Desperate teenage boys with no hopes and little to lose - the knives already take a lot of lives, guns would turn that number into hundreds. And me? I'd probably be dead. The long arm of the law did a blinking good job of protecting me when I left a relationship with a rather nasty person. If he could have got a gun I think his pursuit of me would have been fatal.”
These were the most common reactions, and they were very, very consistent. But there was another, minor thread of the discussion that I hadn’t expected, and that really made me think about this in a new way.
·         But Guns ARE Legal: Several folks reminded me that it IS of course possible to buy a gun here. You just need to have a “good reason” to do so. Several people told me that they themselves had shot or owned a weapon at one time, that it is possible to do so responsibly, but that even as gun users themselves, they would never want “American style” gun ownership. One friend wrote: “I have shot for fun a few times and can appreciate the enjoyment in this, but this is a world away from people freely walking around with guns. Geoff Robbins (named with permission) wrote to me on Twitter as follows:

I was intrigued by this, so I wrote back to learn more.

I became fascinated by this, partly because it exposed such a gap in my own assumptions. Guns are so rare here that I always just think in terms of “guns are unlawful”. Even the cops don’t carry guns! (Well, mostly.)

But they aren’t of course. They are just very tightly and strictly regulated. They are a privilege that can be earned.

Suddenly I had a LOAD of questions. How would I go about getting a gun if I wanted one? What counts as a “good reason” for having one under British Law? Who actually issues gun licenses, and what’s the process?

So I looked into it a bit. In a nutshell, here’s how gun ownership operates in Britain:

There is No Right to Have a Weapon for Self Defence

This is probably the biggest difference between the US and the UK. In Britain, you are not allowed to arm yourself specifically for the purpose of protection against future possible attack. This doesn’t just apply to firearms – you aren’t allowed to carry around knives or mace or anything that is specifically intended to be used as a weapon in case of attack. This isn’t the same thing as saying you don’t have a right of self-defence – you do. If you are attacked, you do have the right to fight back with whatever materials are at hand. To use a concrete example, you would not be allowed to carry a kitchen knife with you in case someone attacks you, but if you ARE attacked in your kitchen you are free to grab a knife and use it provided that this defence is “reasonable”. That means, if someone is grabs your purse and runs off, you’re not allowed to come after him with the knife.

This is the aspect of British gun law that seems most alien to American sensibilities – and it really is quite an extraordinary difference in beliefs. Essentially, in Britain you sign up to a social contract that says collective security (knowing that no one is armed) is more important than an individual right to be armed in defence. One reason this works here is because, as seen by my social media responses, there are very few people here who believe carrying firearms would make them personally safer.

This principle is also important, because so many other things follow on from it within the system of laws – if there’s no right to self-defence, then the “good reasons” to be armed are limited to things like hunting and sport. And there is then no good reason whatsoever to need a loaded weapon in your home at all times.

Some Types of Guns are Totally Banned

This part of British law actually isn’t all that alien to American thinking – we have banned certain types of firearms before both nationally, for instance assault weapons under the Clinton Administration, and locally, for instance the handguns ban in DC (the fact that both of these measures were overturned is just… depressing evidence that this issue is really freakin’ hard in America).

In Britain, assault weapons, automatic weapons, and handguns are simply banned outright. Permanently and nationally.


The licensing system for firearms warns that it takes a minimum of 8 weeks to achieve a license – which sounds like a long time in the context of America’s raging debate over 48-hour waiting periods, but two months isn’t actually that long to wait. Typically it takes longer to get a driver’s licence.

Medical Checks 

As part of your firearms application in Britain, you must declare any illnesses that may affect your ability to safely use the weapon – and this includes any mental illnesses, such as depression.

What’s more, you are asked to provide the details of your doctor, and to waive medical confidentiality for the purpose of allowing the police to confirm this information with them.

Criminal Convictions

You have to declare any criminal convictions, including those which are already “spent” (i.e., you have served your time and are no longer under parole). In most cases, a serious conviction will prevent you from being able to get a license, but even traffic convictions must be reported.

You have to supply contact details for 2 people not related to you who have known you for at least 2 years so that the police can follow up with them as references.

Security Arrangements

You have to confirm how you will be securing your weapon, and whether you will do that at home or at another location (e.g., at a gun club).

Good Reason

And finally, my favourite condition: there has to be a reason why you want or need a gun. “I want one” is not good enough you must have a specific purpose in mind. And since, as we’ve already discussed, having one for self defence is not a lawful reason, that basically means your evidence for a “good reason” is likely going to be limited. As the Metropolitan Police explain in their guidance for applicants:

“To acquire or possess firearms or ammunition under Section 1 of the Firearms Act 1968, you have to provide evidence that you have a good reason to do so. This applies to the grant, renewal or variation of a firearm certificate. This evidence can take several forms: permission to shoot over land or membership of a target shooting club, or a booking or invitation to go deer stalking are examples, but these are not exhaustive.”

One little hiccup – if you plan to go hunting with your weapon, you also need to provide the name of a person who has given you permission to shoot on their land. Remember, you can’t just go into the public woodlands to hunt. So you need a landowner who can confirm your right to hunt there.

As a result, of course, guns are now pretty much the purview of serious hunters or sportsman and there just aren’t that many of those.

One Facebook friend who has worked in government told me, if you “go back and look at the media coverage of the debate about the firearms ban post-Dunblane. There were two piece of legislation, the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 (John Major) and the Firearms (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1997 (Tony Blair). From recollection, one of the arguments that got particular currency was that the legislation would make it really difficult for Britain to compete in shooting events in the Olympics, because competitors would be unable to train in this country. I remember thinking that the fact anyone was making such a niche argument at all was a sign of how utterly marginal guns are to British cultural identity. Big contrast to America where cultural identity (not just the arguments about individual freedom) is a huge part of the issue.


So, laws and culture both play a huge role in the way that our two societies have coped with firearms, no doubt. And here in Britain, there is a complex network of laws that reinforce and maintain a strong aversion to widespread gun ownership. If my fellow Americans want to know now they might restrain guns more through laws, Britain offers a wide range of restrictions and regulations that they could consider. But even more, it offers a culture that has fully rejected general access to firearms for reasons of personal security and societal stability.

We’ll need to learn that lesson too, if such laws are ever going to work.

Final parting statistic: here are the respective gun deaths per 100,000 people in the UK and the US respectively.

Author’s note: For those of you who have been wondering where this blog has been over the last few years – I abandoned it after the 2012 campaign, since President Obama had no further campaigns to run and I had a life to live. You may be interested in my personal blog over at Unworthy Thoughts, on Tumblr. And you can always follow me on Twitter: @karinjr