Wouldn't you feel safer with a gun?
British attitudes are supercilious and misguided
Despite the recent spate of shootings on our streets, we pride
ourselves on our strict gun laws. Every time an American gunman goes
on a killing spree, we shake our heads in righteous disbelief at our
poor benighted colonial cousins. Why is it, even after the Virginia
Tech massacre, that Americans still resist calls for more gun controls?
The short answer is that "gun controls" do not work: they are indeed
generally perverse in their effects. Virginia Tech, where 32 students
were shot in April, had a strict gun ban policy and only last year
successfully resisted a legal challenge that would have allowed the
carrying of licensed defensive weapons on campus. It is with a measure
of bitter irony that we recall Thomas Jefferson, founder of the
University of Virginia, recording the words of Cesare Beccaria:
"Laws that forbid the carrying of arms ... disarm only those who are
neither inclined nor determined to commit crimes ... Such laws make
things worse for the assaulted and better for the assailants; they
serve rather to encourage than to prevent homicides, for an unarmed
man may be attacked with greater confidence than an armed man."
One might contrast the Virginia Tech massacre with the assault on
Virginia's Appalachian Law School in 2002, where 3 lives were lost
before a student fetched a pistol from his car and apprehended the
Virginia Tech reinforced the lesson that gun controls are obeyed only
by the law-abiding. New York has "banned" pistols since 1911, and its
fellow murder capitals, Washington DC and Chicago, have similar bans.
One can draw a map of the US, showing the inverse relationship of the
strictness of its gun laws, and levels of violence: all the way down
to Vermont, with no gun laws at all, and the lowest level of armed
violence (one thirteenth that of Britain).
America's disenchantment with "gun control" is based on experience:
whereas in the 1960s and 1970s armed crime rose in the face of more
restrictive gun laws (in much of the US, it was illegal to possess a
firearm away from the home or workplace), over the past 20 years all
violent crime has dropped dramatically, in lockstep with the spread
of laws allowing the carrying of concealed weapons by law-abiding
citizens. Florida set this trend in 1987, and within 5 years the
states that had followed its example showed an 8% reduction in
murders, 7% reduction in aggravated assaults, and 5% reduction in
rapes. Today 40 states have such laws, and by 2004 the US Bureau
of Justice reported that "firearms-related crime has plummeted".
In Britain, however, the image of violent America remains
unassailably entrenched. Never mind the findings of the
International Crime Victims Survey (published by the Home Office
in 2003), indicating that we now suffer 3 times the level of
violent crime committed in the United States; never mind the
doubling of handgun crime in Britain over the past decade, since
we banned pistols outright and confiscated all the legal ones.
We are so self-congratulatory about our officially disarmed
society, and so dismissive of colonial rednecks, that we have
forgotten that within living memory British citizens could buy
any gun ? rifle, pistol, or machinegun ? without any licence.
When Dr Watson walked the streets of London with a revolver in
his pocket, he was a perfectly ordinary Victorian or Edwardian.
Charlotte Brontë recalled that her curate father fastened his
watch and pocketed his pistol every morning when he got dressed;
Beatrix Potter remarked on a Yorkshire country hotel where only
one of the 8 or 9 guests was not carrying a revolver; in 1909,
policemen in Tottenham borrowed at least 4 pistols from passers-by
(and were joined by other armed citizens) when they set off in
pursuit of 2 anarchists unwise enough to attempt an armed robbery.
We now are shocked that so many ordinary people should have been
carrying guns in the street; the Edwardians were shocked rather
by the idea of an armed robbery.
If armed crime in London in the years before the First World
War amounted to less than 2% of that we suffer today, it was not
simply because society then was more stable. Edwardian Britain was
rocked by a series of massive strikes in which lives were lost and
troops deployed, and suffragette incendiaries, anarchist bombers,
Fenians, and the spectre of a revolutionary general strike made
Britain then arguably a much more turbulent place than it is today.
In that unstable society the impact of the widespread carrying of
arms was not inflammatory, it was deterrent of violence.
As late as 1951, self-defence was the justification of ¾ of all
applications for pistol licences. And in the years 1946-51 armed
robbery, the most significant measure of gun crime, ran at less
than two dozen incidents a year in London; today, in our
disarmed society, we suffer as many every week.
Gun controls disarm only the law-abiding, and leave predators with
a freer hand. Nearly 2½ million people now fall victim to crimes
of violence in Britain every year, more than 4 every minute: crimes
that may devastate lives. It is perhaps a privilege of those who
have never had to confront violence to disparage the power to resist.
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