The shadow of the gun

Barak Obama: "Thoughts and prayers are not enough..."
Barak Obama: “Thoughts and prayers are not enough…”

Readers will not have missed the fact that there has been a mass shooting in Oregon recently. Some commentators point out that it is the 994th mass shooting in the USA in three years – I don’t know how they classify ‘mass’ in that context, but if that is true, or even plausible, it is startling – and that gun deaths in that country total something like 32,000 per year. It is hard to see, within the social and political framework of the USA, how any change can be brought about without a complete sea-change in American culture. What the NRA say is perfectly true – “Guns don’t kill people. People kill people.” But it’s not the whole truth; more near to the whole truth is that those people who kill people by-and-large use guns to do it. For the American attitude to guns in general to change, however, the insurmountable hurdle is not so much the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, but the dead hand of a powerful lobby with an equally powerful national myth standing solidly behind it. I try to maintain a neutral position to the fundamental issue of gun ownership as such, whilst standing a pace back and observing; accordingly I thought it a useful idea to reproduce part of an article I wrote back in 2010. It is not concerned so much with the rights and wrongs of owning and carrying a gun, but with the semantics of the word ‘freedom’ in two cultures.

I have been reading right-wing blogs – not extremist as such, but rather pro-capitalist writing and pages in support of American notions of freedom – because I felt it was fair to be informed by people with views opposite to my own. I looked for, and found, a handful where the bloggers were prepared to advance arguments which were at least coherent even if they were highly arguable.

There was one very interesting blog where the point was made that the American revolution in the 1770s was unlike any other in history. In the others (the writer was thinking of France and Russia especially) the revolutionaries had nothing to lose; in the American Revolution, he argued, the revolutionaries had everything to lose. The signatories to the Declaration of Independence were all men of substance – landowners, prosperous farmers, lawyers – all men who would lose much more than their lives if their revolution failed. Thus the qualities of the freedom won by them were special, unique, the true freedom to which humankind should aspire.

And the proof of this freedom was gun ownership.

That was the point at which I rolled my eyes. He just had to mention guns!

Well, the controversy about gun ownership and its relevance or lack of it to freedom must be familiar to everyone by now. There is little need to state the debating points either way again. However, the incidents in Glasgow in 1919 have prompted me to consider a couple of aspects regarding the lack of gun ownership in the UK, and to write about the subject, mainly for the benefit of my American readers – I do have a few.

I think the starting point for this should be in the late 18th century, because it was at that time that there was a significantly different set of social circumstances on either side of the Atlantic. In effect the laws were similar, inasmuch as a right to bear arms was assumed*, but on the American continent ownership of arms was widespread whilst in the United Kingdom it was uncommon. That is actually a very important historical fact to remember.

Having established that, subsequent laws in the UK which restricted ownership of firearms did not necessarily have a marked social effect – few quiescent citizens would have felt any restriction on their freedom, no matter to what degree they perceived themselves as being free or otherwise. As I said, I am only going to focus on two Acts of Parliament, both of which I would say were highly reactive to contemporaneous events.

Firstly there was the Vagrancy Act of 1824. We’re talking about the period immediately after the Napoleonic Wars. All the weaponry used in the conflict with France were, strictly speaking, the property of the government, as the United Kingdom had if not a standing army then at least an assumption of a single army under the Crown, subject to parliamentary control. However retaining control of the materiel of that army after regiments were disbanded would have been a problem, and Parliament reacted to the situation of unemployed soldiery wandering around as armed vagrants by allowing the arrest of “any person with any gun, pistol, hanger, cutlass, bludgeon or other offensive weapon… with intent to commit a felonious act.” There followed several acts specific to poaching, which seems very much in keeping with Britain’s quondam class system and the law’s concern to protect “property”. It is significant that although the power of arrest seems to be there in the Vagrancy Act, the actual restriction on arms is not, and that leads me to wonder firstly whether there was as much of a social problem as the legislators feared, or secondly whether it was something else they feared and sought to prevent.

There must have been people alive who could remember the revolutionary period in France, from 1789 to 1799, and certainly more people could remember how that had degenerated into the dictatorship of Napoleon. 1812 saw the weavers’ strike in Scotland (the “Radical War”); 1819 saw the Peterloo Massacre; 1820 saw a call for a general strike in Scotland (I’ll let you google these and choose your own sources of information). Nowhere is it recorded that the working people involved in these events were armed**, but the gentry in Parliament must nevertheless have been quaking.

The second piece of legislation I want to mention is the 1920 Firearms Act. The stated intention of the government in passing this Act was to comply with the Paris Arms Convention and to control the overseas arms trade. However once again the country was full of demobilized soldiers, and the possibility was feared that they had access to illicitly obtained arms; moreover there had been the Éirí Amach na Casca in Ireland (the “Easter Rising”) along with other shootings of police etc., a revolution in Russia, and the unrest in Glasgow’s George Square […]. Again I think that the reason for this legislation was fear not of guns but of the disadvantaged working people of the United Kingdom.

Times change. Firearm legislation in the UK has been consolidated, amended, redrafted, sometimes in reaction to events such as the Northern Ireland “Troubles”, and sometimes to individual acts of mayhem such as the Hungerford or Dunblane Massacres, but basically many generations have grown up in the UK accepting that owning a gun must be an exception rather than a rule.

So basically the population of the UK must feel oppressed, must long for the liberation that only Americanisation can bring, must long for the freedom to go down to the local store and tool up with a 45, a 9 mil, or a Glock, yes? Well… no…

What people seem to feel is freedom, specifically the freedom to walk down the streets in the knowledge that they are very, very unlikely to have a gun shoved in their faces.

And by this circumbendibus I arrive at this philosophical point. Does the word “freedom” belong to one group of people to define? Does it mean the freedom to or the freedom from? Or both? Or even neither? And most importantly – wherever you are – has somebody else appropriated that word?


* Based on a law from 1181 during the Reign of King Henry II (England). It is often assumed, not without good reason, that the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution of the United States had the purpose of ensuring that there were sufficient guns in private hands to facilitate the formation of militias in the event of war, and that the subsequent assumption of the “right” to bear arms has been a mis-assumption which has become enshrined in legal textualism. The more recent (since the late 19th century) reliance on the purposive theory in legal matters in the USA, notwithstanding statutory derogation, did not however convince the US Supreme Court in 2008 and 2010 (District of Columbia v Heller and McDonald v Chicago), and the private ownership of arms in the US as a perceived right has been strengthened thereby. However the Supreme Court also stated that its ruling was not to be taken as an indication that all firearm restrictions are unconstitutional. The argument that there was a purposive element in the minds of those jurists who drafted the 2nd Amendment will not go away.

The effect of the 1181 law, by the way, no longer pertains in the UK, because of the concept of the Sovereignty of Parliament, by which Parliament may repeal or amend earlier legislation, with no enshrined exceptions within a codified constitution. Thus UK legislation is never like the “Laws of the Medes and the Persians”, whereas that accusation could be leveled at the Constitution of the USA, despite its utopian conception.

** The striking weavers of 1812 had intended to seize weapons from the Carron Company Ironworks.


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