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Is gun control behind our loss of civil liberties?

This is a question that has been bouncing round in my head, probably for years. Maybe I've been visiting too many libertarian blogs. But then again, maybe there's something in it. We'll see.

A couple of things prompted me to write all this down. Firstly a line in Jan Morris's recent article about civil liberties on Comment is Free and secondly an article on gun control by an American campaigner called Dave Kopel.

Morris first.

Even the middle classes, once the very backbone of robust individualism, are not immune to the contagion. They all think twice about expressing their views in case they say something that is politically incorrect.

She might as well have been speaking about me, because the idea that gun control might be behind our loss of civil liberties is deeply, deeply politically incorrect. It's an idea which is likely to get one labelled as a "nutter". A couple of years ago, I couldn't have imagined holding this kind of belief. But perhaps things are changing, now the civil liberties debate is in full flow, and maybe it's time to try the idea out for size. We'll see.

Morris goes on the predict our eventual decline into submissiveness and eventually into totalitarianism.

A few more generations of nagging and surveillance and we shall have forgotten what true freedom is. Young people will have foregone the excitements of risk, academics will temper all thought with caution, and the great public will accept without demur all restrictions and requirements of the state. Ours will be a people moulded to docility, perfect fodder for ideologues.

And you can see it happening all around you as the surveillance state grows, and freedoms that we once took for granted are legislated into the history books. It really is time to make a stand.

And what about Dave Kopel? Kopel is a libertarian writer and researcher;  he was formerly professor of law at New York University and the [Update: an assistant] attorney general for the state of Colorado. Clearly then, he is a man of some intellectual stature. However he is also a prominent supporter of the right of the American public to carry firearms and his stand on this issue would surely lead a majority of people in this country to categorise him as a "gun-nut". I'm sure I am doing myself no favours by mentioning his ideas on this side of the Atlantic, but as I said, perhaps people might now be ready to consider a different view. We'll see.

Some weeks back, I came across an article Kopel co-wrote with another lawyer called All The Way Down The Slippery Slope: Gun prohibition in England and some lessons for civil liberties in America (link). Like Jan Morris, Kopel also sees Britain ceasing to care about civil liberties - he describes how a people can lose what he calls their "rights-conciousness". He then tries to explain this in terms of the history of gun control in the UK.

After tracing the history of gun ownership from its nineteenth century apogee to full prohibition today, Kopel sets out the effects of the ban on civil liberties in Part IX of the essay. Although his view is that gun prohibition in Britain was not behind the loss of civil liberty, he doesn think that it played an important part:

[A]ll civil liberties in Great Britain have suffered a perilous decline from their previous heights. The nation that once had the best civil liberties record in Western Europe now has one of the worst. The evisceration of the right to arms has not, of course, been the primary cause of the decline, although, as this Essay will discuss later, it has played a not inconsiderable role. More generally, the decline of all British civil liberties appears to stem from some of the same conditions that have afflicted the British right to arms. 

This section of the essay is worth reading just to feel the sense of incomprehension that Kopel has as he reels off the list of restrictions on their liberty that the British have allowed their rulers to inflict on them.

While Kopel makes a strong case against what is currently being called the salami slicing of civil liberties, his thesis that gun control hasn't been a primary cause is starting to seem to me to be wrong, at least for some of the civil liberties problems we face.

Take CCTV. Our city streets are, by common consent, violent, dirty unpleasant places for the most part. Only young strong men are likely to feel safe in many parts of the country, and then only if they are in a gang. As Justin Webb's recent article on violence in America made clear, American streets just aren't like this. 

Why is it then that so many Americans - and foreigners who come here - feel that the place is so, well, safe?

A British man I met in Colorado recently told me he used to live in Kent but he moved to the American state of New Jersey and will not go home because it is, as he put it, "a gentler environment for bringing the kids up."

This is New Jersey. Home of the Sopranos.

Brits arriving in New York, hoping to avoid being slaughtered on day one of their shopping mission to Manhattan are, by day two, beginning to wonder what all the fuss was about. By day three they have had had the scales lifted from their eyes.

I have met incredulous British tourists who have been shocked to the core by the peacefulness of the place, the lack of the violent undercurrent so ubiquitous in British cities, even British market towns.

"It seems so nice here," they quaver.

Well, it is! [...]

Ten or 20 years ago, it was a different story, but things have changed.

And this is Manhattan.

Wait till you get to London Texas, or Glasgow Montana, or Oxford Mississippi or Virgin Utah, for that matter, where every household is required by local ordinance to possess a gun.

Folks will have guns in all of these places and if you break into their homes they will probably kill you.

They will occasionally kill each other in anger or by mistake, but you never feel as unsafe as you can feel in south London.

It is a paradox. Along with the guns there is a tranquillity and civility about American life of which most British people can only dream.

Webb is clearly surprised by this, but he deserves praise for telling it as it is. To Americans it's probably less of a shock. beyond%20this%20horizon.jpgThe science fiction writer Robert A Heinlein was pointing out the connection between civility and arms as far back as 1942, when one of his characters opined that "an armed society is a polite society". And when you think about it, the paradox that Webb sees is only on the surface.  As soon as you realise that noone in their right mind would get aggressive with or be rude to someone carrying a gun, it all becomes painfully obvious.

So in America, an armed people has retained old-fashioned manners and old-fashioned civil liberties. This is the common law approach to public order that we used to have here. Civil society was responsible for law and order, and every member of the public was required (that's required, not advised) to intervene if they saw a crime being committed.  Perhaps partly because of that requirement people were able to carry arms for their defence. anarchists.jpgAn article from the Telegraph from a few years back tells the story of a group of Latvian anarchists who attempted a wages robbery in Tottenham. Their intended victims fought back and they were forced to flee, pursued across London by a posse of doughty citizens, both armed and unarmed, who eventually apprehended them. (The police had lost the key to their gun cupboard, and were unable to assist).

This is how it used to be. However it simply doesn't happen like this any more. In the twentieth century we took an entirely different approach to firearms, with the freedom to go armed being steadily eroded by means of successive small legislative and administrative steps - what is now called "salami slicing". First there was licencing and registration, and then tighter and tighter restrictions on who could have a gun, followed by tighter and tighter restrictions on what guns they could have, and how many, and how they had to store them. Eventually the populace was entirely disarmed, and now society can only fall back on the police for its defence. 

The first thing to notice about this process is that it has reduced the number of law enforcement officers on the streets to a tiny fraction of what it was. In the nineteenth century, as we've seen, every adult was responsible for upholding the law and preventing crime. Now we are, quite correctly, advised to leave all this to the police - obviously they are now the only ones with the wherewithal to come out alive from a brush with the criminal classes.

With such a devastating loss of policing manpower, there is now a fleetingly small chance of a law enforcement officer being on hand when a crime is committed. This in turn has meant that the former state of affairs, where  the law could intervene as a crime was committed or soon afterwards, has become impossible to pursue with conviction any longer. There is simply not the manpower to do so. With a horrible inevitability, the state has had to try to convince criminals not to commit crimes in ways other than presenting them with a risk of being caught in the act.

The traditional way of doing this was of course to make the punishments severe enough to discourage people, but with much of the middle classes persuaded that long prison sentences were illiberal, this approach too has suffered. Capital and corporal punishment have likewise fallen by the wayside, and because of the same erroneous presumption that such punishments were irreconcilable with liberalism.

cctv.jpgAs a result, the state has had to resort to methods used in places where the state doesn't have the confidence of the people. It has taken on all the powers of surveillance that we would associate with a police state - CCTV, DNA database, warrantless searches, fingerprinting children, ID cards, in a desperate bid to convince criminals that the risk of being caught is so high as to make the effort pointless.  But with prison sentences handed out so sparingly, and so regularly cut short by parole boards, the criminal classes are simply not convinced that the risks outweigh the rewards. They know where the CCTV cameras are and the crime wave simply shifts to somewhere less overlooked. 

Looked at this way the root cause of the wave of authoritarian legislation which threatens to swamp us is not authoritarianism so much as "woolly liberalism". We won't punish criminals adequately, so we get more criminals. We won't allow the law-abiding to uphold the law, so our streets get swamped with CCTV. Witnesses can't defend themselves guns, so we have to allow anonymous evidence in court. Women can't defend themselves from rapists, so they shouldn't go out alone. The opinionated can't defend themselves from retribution, so better to legislate them into silence.

We find ourselves between the horns of a dilemma. The idea of rearming the populace is greeted by most "right-thinking" members of the middle classes as evidence of a kind of madness, an idea to get you cast out from polite society. "We don't want to end up like America", they will say, as they check the locks on their doors and windows, and test the burglar alarm one more time.

But the alternative is to continue our increasingly precipitous slide down the slippery slope that ends up with the UK resembling North Korea. 

America or North Korea. You decide.

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Reader Comments (36)

I used to be very much in favour of gun control, to the extent that I thought anyone advocating liberalisation of such laws must be defective.
I have since learnt that more liberal gun laws, (in the genuine rather than US sense of liberal), do not mean more crime but rather that those afflicted by crime have a means of defense.

It is the considered opinion of those elder than my generation to whom I have talked about this, that much of the rationale for bringing in such restrictive laws was because guns were becoming too cheap. Their view has been that it is all fine and good for a "bloody good chap" to own a gun but allowing the "lower classes" access to the same was too dangerous. (I do know some rather odd people).

In defense of your position however, I would say that there is not only no good reason to disarm the law abiding but that it is inevitable that in making the populous weaker, they will seek protection from elsewhere, whatever the price they have to pay.
Jul 4, 2008 at 1:43 AM | Unregistered CommenterFalco
Is gun control behind our loss of civil liberties?

No, it is just one of the freedoms we have lost. I think it is something even more politically incorrect - democracy. Governments need to pander to the electorate. Sadly, eroding our freedoms to "protect" us is a cheap populist headline. The rights of minorities are sacrificed to secure a few votes.
Jul 4, 2008 at 10:21 AM | Unregistered CommenterKit
The policy of disarmament itself is not the cause of the loss of civil liberties, but the mentality behind it is. We are merely far along the road of intellectual thought that begins with "we can take care of you better than you can take care of yourself".
Jul 4, 2008 at 11:24 AM | Unregistered CommenterRichard
Is gun control behind our loss of civil liberties?

Yes, it is. Before 1903 there was no firearms legislation in the UK, and between 1903 and 1920 it was illegal to sell pistols to madmen.

With the introduction of the 1920 Firearms Act it became obvious (in retrospect, at least) that a) the Cabinet could lie to the public with impugnity (dressing counter-insurgency legislation in a mantle of publc safety) and b) it could trample on the Bill of Rights.

Without this precedent, and the subsequent powers of the Home Office to decide the meaning of "good reason" in the issue of a Firearms Certificate, it would have been impossible for us to lose the right to armed self-defence in 1946.

Once that's removed there is fostered (whether explicitly planned or not) a culture that eschews self-reliance in favour of dependency, and it's this that allows the State to farm the non-political class for votes and taxes.

Jul 4, 2008 at 6:07 PM | Unregistered CommenterJD
You are not the only one to have come around to this way of thinking. Two recent cases make the problem abundantly clear.

The first was that of the former soldier, 57 years old, who apprehended some yobs attacking his house after waiting for the police to arrive for some time. The mother of the child was successful in calling the police and he was charged with kidnapping. This happened in the UK.

The second was the case of a former US marine, who I believe was as old as 70. He was in a sandwich shop when two chaps tried to hold it up. They ordered him into the bathroom, at which point he drew his gun and shot them both dead.

In which society are you safer from crime? You are quite right that we have lost a sense of responsibility. The question now is usually not even what the state can do to help me, but what I can get from the state after it exercises it's unique powers to use force, whether I was the aggressor or not.
Jul 4, 2008 at 7:08 PM | Unregistered Commenterthomas
Sorry this a bit chicken and egg logic but...

If the freedom to bear arms is a civil liberty then how can it be the cause of the loss of liberties? To many a lot of the Reforming Acts of the 19th Century restricted liberties which predate gun control.

What was the cause the Firearms Act? The government feared a Russian style revolution but Britain had faced greater revolutionary threats in the passed without feeling the need to disarm the population. My argument is to blame democracy, this was a popular Act and democratic governments need popularity. The same trick Brown has pulled.
Jul 4, 2008 at 7:47 PM | Unregistered CommenterKit
You could possibly trace a chain of causality with politicians trading away firearms for popularity, and then all the other civil liberties falling like dominos thereafter. In this way you would be right that unlimited democracy becomes the ultimate culprit.
Jul 4, 2008 at 8:00 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill
Or is just linked to the size of government:

Sorry Bish but you have rattled my cage. But the big question is how to reverse it. Is Gordon Brown our King John or our Charles I? Is Fuel Duty protests our Boston Tea Party?
Jul 4, 2008 at 10:29 PM | Unregistered CommenterKit
What a great thought. The problem for getting this idea out into the world of the unthinking is that the anti gun lobby have had years to develop the automatic response in the public against re arming the population.

If everyone had guns, people would get killed by muggers also carrying guns. Just a twist on the anti knife argument being quoted at the moment.

When I was a gun owning youth, prior to 1987, I was always impressed by a slogan written on the wall of the local gun shop.

If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.
Jul 4, 2008 at 11:06 PM | Unregistered Commenterf0ul

We desperately need a written constitution. I vote we copy the US constitution with all its amendmendments - and only change what needs to change (eg name of country).

One side-effect of this would be to put a sock in the prats who keep floating the idea of sharia law.

But the big benefit would be to stop this salami-slicing dead in its tracks. There would be red lines and we would see very clearly that politicos were trying to erode our constitutional rights.
Jul 4, 2008 at 11:40 PM | Unregistered CommenterJack Hughes
Just one personal example of salami slicing in action. At my daughters school the "food police" formed a policy of what was acceptable food for the children to take to school for lunch and snacks.

We had several incidents of chocolate treats and even home-baked buns getting confiscated.

At the time I did not want to make a fuss - I certainly did not want to lead a "chocolate bun protest". But looking back, the school was nibbling away at my freedom to feed my family as I see fit.

With a written constitution on my side I would have been the "defender of the constitution", not just "school in bun fight".
Jul 4, 2008 at 11:52 PM | Unregistered CommenterJack Hughes

Interesting about the "chocolate bun protest". The same thing goes on at my kids' school. Fortunately, enough people are ignoring the stipulations to make it unenforceable.
Jul 5, 2008 at 6:42 AM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

If you are interested, I posted about the Tottenham Outrage a while ago.

Jack Hughes,

If only we could have had a written constitution in 1800 or so. The trouble is that a written constitution written now would establish - to popular acclaim - all sorts of "rights" to such things as housing, employment, or even "equal respect" that would amount to setting in stone modern statism and political correctness.
Jul 5, 2008 at 11:24 AM | Unregistered CommenterNatalie Solent
Sorry, can't seem to make the link to the Tottenham Outrage post work.
Jul 5, 2008 at 11:25 AM | Unregistered CommenterNatalie Solent

It's one of the oddities of Squarespace that it doesn't allow commenters to use HTML. Annoying sometimes, but it does stop permanent italics disease. It does convert HTML links automatically though.

I've reformated it for you.
Jul 5, 2008 at 2:46 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill
I also see that there is now a website devoted to the Tottenham Outrage
Jul 5, 2008 at 3:33 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill
Kit: The cause of the Firearms Act was the Irish troubles / insurrection / civil war / insert noun of choice.

Bishop: It's not just firearms, is it ? If you hear shouting in the street, and go to investigate, carrying a pickaxe handle, a samurai sword, a baseball bat, or a kitchen knife, you are risking arrest even if you don't use them, and if you do use them in self-defence your situation will be even worse.

We don't need the right to keep and bear arms so much as the right to self-defence, and for most of us effective self-defence will require use of a weapon of some kind.
Jul 5, 2008 at 4:48 PM | Unregistered CommenterRobbo

While I accept that it applies to other weapons too, at the end of the day it's firearms which are important because only firearms allow weak people to stand up to strong ones.

I think the argument from the state is that you have a right to self-defence still. (What they don't mention is that they've removed the means.)
Jul 5, 2008 at 6:16 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill
David Kopel was never the Attorney General of Colorado, an elected position. He was, however, employed as an Assistant Attorney General in the Colorado Attorney General's office.
Jul 5, 2008 at 7:57 PM | Unregistered CommenterFlash Gordon
Thanks Flash

I've updated the text accordingly.
Jul 5, 2008 at 8:01 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill
The desire to deny liberty to others must be endemic to the human condition, at least to the condition of some humans. After all, there were four Supreme Court justices in the <i>Heller</i> case who voted to deny that the Second Amendment respects an individual right to own firearms. They held so even while the overwhelming body of Constitutional scholarship in the universities and law schools for the past 25 years has developed a "standard model" that it is an individual right, and in the face of the rather simple language of the amendment itself.

The U.S. Constitution uses the phrase "of the people" in no less that 5 other places to refer to rights or individuals, but this foursome of Ginsburg, Breyer, Stevens, and Souter were unmoved and so against freedom they were willing to embarrass themselves by holding that the "the people" in this case referred only to the states and their citizens collectively. They even went so far as to give lip service to the idea of an individual right but then pronounced that, in their view, it could only be exercised by all the people acting collectively in a state organized militia.

They were so keen on restricting freedom as to cite previous cases that in all likelihood they had not even read because the cases were inapposite and irrelevant to the issues in <i>Heller.</i>

A written Constitution would be a good idea in Britain but no one should think it will really change anything. As has been seen with the Magna Carta and the United States Constitution, politicians, bureaucrats and even learned judges will simply ignore and obfuscate the parts they don't happen to like at a given moment.

In the end, the only thing that matters is the love of liberty and justice, or lack thereof, in those who hold the power to make the rules.
Jul 5, 2008 at 8:33 PM | Unregistered CommenterFlash Gordon
I agree. The duplicity of judges is a story which needs to be aired more widely, particularly in the UK context. Where we have constitutional documents in place, like the Bill of Rights, their failure to enforce it needs to be publicised and condemned.

In some ways, this is the genius of the British Constitution though, because at the end of the day, you can always get a new government and hopefully better laws, but you can't get a new constitution. If the judges have entrenched an incorrect interpretation of that constitution, you are pretty much stuck with it.
Jul 5, 2008 at 9:01 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill
Very interesting Blog. As a Brit who moved to the USA 15 years ago, I've watch the UK slip further down the slope of loss of liberty and more of an emphasis on protecting wrong doers than allowing law abiding citizens to protect themselves. I become less and less comfortable when visiting the UK. As US citizen, I am able to exercise my right to protect myself and my family under the 2nd amendment, and do so. Someone once said that an armed society is a polite society. But, the chances that the British establishment would ever go back on gun control is very doubtful. Salami slicing - been going on for years in the UK. Get armed and put the thugs on notice - someone break into my house or tries to assault me or my wife on the streets, they will not do that again to someone else.
Jul 6, 2008 at 6:37 PM | Unregistered CommenterDr. Steve
George Orwell intended "1984" to be a warning, not a blueprint.

Ingsoc in good old Airstrip One is doubleplusgood, and those crimethinkers who doubt its value should be sent to joycamps right away. Or so the goodthinkers (politically correct) seem to think.

I don't know what Orwell would have thought of Sharia being enforced in Britain.

Jul 7, 2008 at 2:42 AM | Unregistered CommenterSteffan
One of the most interesting parts of the recent Heller decision on the U.S. Constitution's Second Amendment (right to keep and bear arms) was a discussion of the history of the Amendment - which is nothing more than a discussion of the rights of free Englishman at the time. One of the passages quoted discusses the philosophy behind the English Right (from the English Bill of Rights of 1689) and the Second Amendment:

St. George Tucker’s version of Blackstone’s Commentaries, as we explained above, conceived of the Blackstonian arms right as necessary for self-defense. He equated that right, absent the religious and class-based restrictions, with the Second Amendment. . . .:

"This may be considered as the true palladium of liberty . . . . The right to self-defence is the first law of nature: in most governments it has been the study of rulers to confine the right within the narrowest limits possible. Wherever standing armies are kept up, and the right of the people to keep and bear arms is, under any colour or pretext whatsoever, prohibited, liberty, if not already annihilated, is on the brink of destruction.”
Jul 7, 2008 at 6:13 PM | Unregistered CommenterGW
There are a couple of interesting questions deriving from the Bill of Rights position on the right to bear arms. A recent case found that subsequent legislation had repealed this clause of the Bill of Rights by implication. However the Metric Martyrs case found that constitutional legislation was not capable of implied repeal. If there are any lawyers reading, I'm interested to know where this leaves the ruling of the earlier case.

Secondly there is the question of whether there the rights of Englishmen are actually entrenched. The appeal court in the Burke case found that this was not allowed, but there appears to be a body of opinion among scholars across the common law countries that this is not the case. I'm starting to research this a bit more for a forthcoming posting.
Jul 7, 2008 at 6:37 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill
I don't think 1984 is a good novel to portray where we are going although I think Newspeak is relevant to political correctness.

A better novel for that is Atlas Shrugged. It shows the growth of bureaucracy and statism.
Jul 7, 2008 at 11:07 PM | Unregistered CommenterTDK
Books? Books? It really doesn't matter which books are or are not a "blueprint."

What does matter is that now, finally, after years of drifting down the brute fact is that the Brits are screwed and they screwed themselves.

A nice essay but it will change nothing. Liberty is lost long before the guns are lost, but when the guns go liberty leaves. Forever.

Carry on.
Jul 11, 2008 at 7:01 PM | Unregistered Commentervanderleun
This was an excellent post. Just to let you know, I submitted your post to a weekly contest held at the Watcher's Council. You won in the non-council category over some stiff competition.
Jul 12, 2008 at 5:28 AM | Unregistered CommenterGW
Thanks GW! You made my day!
Jul 12, 2008 at 6:36 AM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill
As an American citizen I found your article fascinating reading.

As an armed American citizen, I found it forboding, considering that England is so often held up as a model for the US to follow regarding gun control.

BTW, please be advised that I have in my possession (3) of your excellent Lee-Enfield rifles. A No.4Mk1(WWII vintage), a No.1 MkIII (WWI vintage) - my personal favorite, and a "Jungle Carbine" (WWII vintage).

I plan to keep them quite safe for you, considering you are no longer trusted by your government to have such items. They are a joy to shoot and the history wrapped around these weapons is magnificent!

Anyway, good luck with getting your rights back - and I truly mean that! You guys have a terrible situation on your hands to deal with and I really don't have any good advice for you other than to fight the good fight and never give up.
Feb 3, 2009 at 10:26 PM | Unregistered CommenterScottie
Thanks for the thought Scottie - I think the tide is turning, although maybe not on gun control yet.
Feb 3, 2009 at 10:39 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill
You left a comment on my blog so I am reciprocating. The salami effect that you mention in your article is exactly what is happening here in the US. There is now a new resolution H.R. 45 before our House that would further add to the existing requirements for licensing and registration, ownership, what guns you can own and how to store them. Despite what our new President says I can guarantee that unless we as citizens oppose it at every turn we will eventually end up as you have in Great Britain. I really enjoyed this article and I will be promoting it via Twitter here. Thanks.
Feb 4, 2009 at 1:30 PM | Unregistered CommenterMichael Tefft
Thanks for the kind words Michael, and good luck with your fight.
Feb 4, 2009 at 2:12 PM | Registered CommenterBishop Hill

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I definitely love your own posting style, very interesting. don’t give up and also keep posting as it just simply that is worth to read it,excited to looked over far more of your articles, have a good one

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