Why shouldn’t we have the right to pack heat?

It’s almost blasphemy to say this, but it needs to be said: Britain’s gun laws should be massively relaxed.

Christopher White

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Topics Politics

After a summer in which not one but two armed men caused chaos in northern England, it would have been easy for the Lib-Con coalition to react to the media attention by announcing some new restriction on guns. Derrick Bird, the Cumbrian taxi driver who shot 12 people in a killing spree on 2 June, has long since slipped from the media’s attention. But Monday’s funeral of Raoul Moat, who in July shot three people and then went on the run for a week before shooting himself, was a big story in this week’s papers.

Cynics were wrong about the government, however. The assumption was that once the supposed realities of office had set in, the Tories would prove no better than Labour for making bad law in response to the latest fashionable moral panic. But 10 Downing Street is not The Shining’s Overlook Hotel, and not all of its residents lose their minds. So although the last government made it an offence to have so much as a quiet glass of wine with a picnic for fear it might end in a brawl, the new administration has so far refused to jerk even when it’s a gunman testing their reflexes.

Any further tightening of the UK’s already corset-like gun laws is looking increasingly unlikely as the two inquiries into recent shooting events near completion, and a planned debate on the subject was not considered important enough to squeeze in, as promised, before the start of the parliamentary recess. And with good reason: extending what are already amongst the strictest laws in the world would take aim unfairly at 200,000 perfectly peaceable firearm owners, and more than half-a-million shotgun certificate holders, on the basis of one individual snapping perhaps once a decade. Our new prime minister quite correctly said that you can’t legislate for a switch going off in someone’s head.

But much of the opposition to gun ownership originates not in the brain but in the gut. The proponents of ever-harsher restrictions attack sporting pastimes – or forms of pest control – that they don’t wish to partake in themselves and don’t understand. Anyone wishing to own a firearm is stigmatised as at best a Rambo-wannabe weirdo and at worst a Derrick Bird, Thomas Hamilton or Michael Ryan in the making.

The evidence used to argue this case is invariably specious. The Gun Control Network puts itself in the line of fire with a particularly deceptive example. Its website has a graph claiming to show a strong link between gun ownership and gun deaths across several countries. A clue to why it is misleading can be found in that word ‘deaths’, for it includes suicides as well as murders. To add insult to gunshot wound, it overlooks other types of homicide. Murders specifically from firearms are bound to go up where they are readily available, but may well be nothing more than a substitute for the stabbings, poisonings and bludgeonings that might otherwise have occurred.

The anti-gun campaign also ignores other factors known to be associated with crime, such as poverty – of which there are large pockets in US cities – and, crucially, it excludes Russia. This country has firearms laws bearing a greater resemblance to the UK’s than America’s, but it also has five times the murder rate of the US.

Even evidence taken solely from the US shows gun bans could be counterproductive as well as illiberal. Take Florida, one of the most gun-totin’ states in the union and a ‘shall issue’ jurisdiction: this means that the granting of permits to carry a concealed weapon is subject only to meeting a set of minimum requirements, including a background check and training on handgun safety. It changed the law on concealed carry in 1987, allowing its citizens to carry a weapon in public as long as it was out of sight, four years before the peak in crime rates that saw American civilians increasingly reaching for guns so that they could demand that evil-doers reach for the skies.

By the time taxi driver Derrick Bird had wreaked havoc upon sleepy English villages, Florida had issued more than 1.8million permits to carry a firearm. In the 23 years since first allowing its residents to pack heat in public, the Sunshine State has revoked only 167 licences on the grounds of gun violence: legally carried weapons are overwhelmingly not used to commit crimes. The same can be said of firearms that remain in the home, or on the firing range or hunting ground: estimates of gun-related crimes in which the weapons involved are legally owned are around one to two per cent.

There’s more. Of the top 70 most crime-ridden US cities, Miami also has one of the lowest per capita rates of rape. This may be simply a coincidence, or it may substantiate a saying popular around those parts: God made man and woman, but Samuel Colt made them equal. Figures from 50 freedom-of-information requests on the incidence of violent crime and numbers of concealed-carry permits for the biggest US cities reveal that, when unemployment rate, population density and public spending are accounted for, the crime rate stays more or less flat with increasing numbers of permits, suggesting a feedback between the two and a small deterrent effect.

That small scale of deterrence is likely because fear of crime is greater than crime itself. Over the past 10 years, Americans’ perceptions of how violent their country is have continued to worsen even as actual offences have dropped. In 2006, 68 per cent of Americans believed that there was more crime than the previous year despite the real rate of offending having dropped every year since 1993, while 37 per cent were afraid to walk home alone at night. Perhaps the only thing more likely to strike terror into American hearts is public expenditure: even the towns most willing to tax and spend – New York City, Washington, DC – have less than a quarter as many police officers per civilian as the British average. And yet, although the murder rate is considerably higher in the US, the rate of many other crimes is higher on this side of the Atlantic.

Not that Britain is exactly unsafe either, despite some perceptions. To take just one demographic: half of over-75s are afraid of leaving their homes after dark and two thirds think they will inevitably become victims of crime as they get older, despite the over-60s being less likely to have crimes committed against them than younger people. Meanwhile, more than 90 per cent of the British public think high-street CCTV cameras are a good thing despite the devices’ well-documented uselessness in either preventing or solving crime.

A different kind of camera deserves much of the blame for this irrational terror, and that was brought starkly into focus by the dozens of lenses trained on the second British lone gunman in as many months to be given an enormous amount of media coverage: Raoul Moat. Judging by the level of media and law-enforcement resources deployed – including TV survival expert Ray Mears and a Tornado jet loaned by the Royal Air Force – one could easily be forgiven for thinking that Northumberland had temporarily been mistaken for the Tora Bora and the fugitive was an al-Qaeda mastermind rather than an unhinged doorman.

Instead of this panicky, scattergun approach to firearms control, we need to think more clearly about what legislation is trying to achieve and how to do so without criminalising the law-abiding majority. The people who need to be stopped from taking weapons on to the streets are those willing to use them to commit crimes, not those who want to protect themselves. That makes the idea of punitive prison sentences for simply carrying a weapon patently absurd because someone who is not put off by the prospect of a life sentence for plunging a blade into another human being’s chest or firing hot metal into someone’s face is not likely to be dissuaded by the idea of a few years’ imprisonment merely for having a weapon about their person. Such bans are inevitably ineffectual in relation to the very people that they’re targeted at. After all, many criminals are more terrified of each other than they are of prison.

In the 12 months to July, there have been 3,000 firearms offences in London – predominantly unlawful possession, including air weapons – but only 21 gun murders out of a total of 122 homicides. In other words, serious violent crime is rare even amongst those given to criminality. Nonetheless, it is not unreasonable to allow people to carry some protection against the possibility of being the victim of such crime. Seat belts are mandatory, despite the low risk of being killed in a road accident. Why shouldn’t we be allowed the option of carrying a weapon, even if the risk of being seriously assaulted is also very low?

Overblown fear of crime creates an irrational fear of guns that leads to grotesque injustices. In June, a Scottish grandmother was jailed for five years for failing to hand in a war trophy inherited from her father, who had served in the Royal Navy. It results in silliness such as the British shooting team for the 2012 Olympic Games being denied public money and forced to train in Switzerland.

But most of all it means that, however welcome the decision not to increase restrictions on gun ownership, this is always a one-way fight. It is practically blasphemy to suggest loosening those legal bonds and freeing the hands of responsible citizens to use these tools for legitimate purposes without excessive interference. That the fear of crime was cynically played upon by the Conservatives before the election, with talk of strengthening rights to use force in self-defence, is therefore doubly ironic: it’s rare that there is any need to do defend ourselves, and we are in any case not to be trusted with the best means available.

Christopher White is a London-based writer and journalist.

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