The Acceptable Cost of the Right to Bear Arms
So here’s the argument in favour of No Gun Controls that was offered to me on Friday afternoon. Someone actually said to me, with their bare face hanging out, that “one good bullet” would have taken care of the Newtown situation. That is, if more Responsible Citizens Of The Good Old US Of A had been carrying firearms inside (let’s say) a school, then the shooters would have been taken out by said Responsible Citizens before they had the chance to enact a massacre.
I don’t especially want to out the person who said this to me by sourcing the quote. However, it’s a common enough position that I hope it’s clear I’m not inventing a straw man with which to duel. It gets trotted out a lot. Your opinion may differ, and I invite you to stop reading if you’re uncomfortable with it. I get paid either way.
At first look, an argument may be made for that statement. However, for it to stand up to stringent thought, there’s a gimme. A thing you have to give me for the argument to work. In this instance, the gimme is clairvoyance. In order to prevent the loss of innocent life, a Responsible Citizen has to be in the right place, ten seconds before the shooter starts shooting. Otherwise, we’re not talking about preventable massacres.
We’re talking about the acceptable cost to you of being able to bear arms without infringement. When you make this argument, you are telling me that you’re OK with some people being dead, because you think that lax gun controls ensure that not everybody is dead.
As I write this, it seems likely that the main weapon used at Newtown was a style of assault rifle preferred by special forces teams around the world. Now, I understand there have been a dozen bear sightings around Newtown in the last year. And I’m not an expert. I mean, I’m British. We used to have bears in Britain, but we ate them all, over a thousand years ago. But I’m thinking that 26 semi-automatic .233 rounds through a carbine with a built-in flash suppressor is probably overkill for civilian bear defence.
The acceptable cost of the right to bear arms is that a kid with a special forces weapon can walk into a school and kill a bunch of people – because that same right causes the potential for someone else to pull a gun and kill that person. The Federal Gun-Free School Zones Act is relatively toothless, after all (and as late as 2012 Ron Paul was trying to get it repealed). It could happen, right?
But it never does. The argument suggests that gun controls need to be looser in order for more guns to be in play to create those opportunities. What I don’t see is how that approach avoids arming every teacher and child in America. What it requires, to make it work, is magic. And demanding magic is not an adult response.
There are licensed gun owners in the UK. Typically, they belong to a gun or sports club, or are collectors working with muzzle-loading or single-shot weapons. Or farmers, hunting for young people having sex in their fields in the summer (yes, I hold a grudge). Derrick Bird, who killed a dozen people in 2010, legally held his shotgun and bolt-action rifle. There remains a question as to whether or not he tried and failed to check himself into psychiatric care before everything went to hell, and a brief look at the man’s life reveals a man who should not have had guns. So it happens, even here.
In 1996, a thing called Thomas Hamilton walked into a school in Dunblane with two 9mm pistols and two Magnum revolvers and unloaded a hundred bullets into 17 people. Again, he held those guns legally. Hamilton, not unknown to the locals as a paranoid nutter with a liking for small boys in swimming trunks, should never have had his gun license renewed so many times. No system is perfect.
But after Dunblane, gun control laws were enacted – laws that ensured that Derrick Bird did not have an assault weapon in 2010. Laws that – in tandem with at least some mental health provision – ensure that these events are not happening several times a year.
Gun crime does not go away after weapons bans. Illegal weapons always circulate. Gun crime has gone down since Dunblane, but apparently you can still pick up a hand grenade in Manchester for 50 quid. Of course it’s not perfect.
But it was decided, by the society that pressured the government of the day, that the freedom to hold firearms came with an unacceptable cost.
With around 30,000 gun deaths in the US per year compared to around 50 in the UK, where the US population is some five times greater than the UK population, the attitudes to acceptable cost are clear.
This is not a determination that will be made in the United States.
So turn the news off. Write a note to your American friends. Give them a call. Tell them you love them, and that you think of them often. Because one day, it’s going to be them on the news. Or, more likely, their kids. It really is as simple as that. Because there’s no such thing as magic. And there’s no such thing as one good bullet.
Follow Warren on Twitter: @warrenellis
Image by Marta Parszeniew
Previously: Warren Ellis's report from the year 2022