The Acceptable Cost of the Right to Bear Arms
So here’s the argument in favor 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 USA carried firearms inside (let’s say) schools, then guys like the Newtown shooter would be taken out before they could have the chance to enact a massacre. I don’t especially want to out the person who said this to me. However, it’s a common enough position that I hope it’s clear I’m not inventing a straw man with which to duel.
At first look, an argument may be made for the initial statement. However, for it to stand up to stringent thought, there’s a gimme. A thing you have to give up 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 everyone will die.
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 20 to 30 semi-automatic .233 rounds through a carbine with a built-in flash suppressor is probably overkill for any civilian bear defense.
So, we should accept that a kid with a special forces weapon can just walk into a school and kill a bunch of people, because that same right that aided him in getting the weapon causes the potential for someone else to pull another gun out and kill him? What I don’t see is how that approach avoids arming every teacher and child in America. What it requires to work is magic. And demanding magic is not an adult response to a tragedy.
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 guy who should not have had guns. So it happens, even in the UK. 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 nut with a taste 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 bucks. 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.
What I do is just turn the news off and write a note to my American friends. I make sure I let them know I love them and that I think of them often. Because one day, it could 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
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