Saturday, 5 June 2010

On the Cumbrian shootings and gun control laws

On Wednesday, Cumbrian taxi driver Derrick Bird snapped. The precise reasoning behind this is unclear and will most likely remain so. Whatever the case, his subsequent rampage saw 12 people dead before he added himself to their number.

Unsurprisingly, this has led to calls for tighter gun control.

In the Guardian, Peter Squires offers that "if gun owners are to keep their weapons at home, as they want to, then they should not be allowed to keep ammunition at home as well." The paper itself points out that "Britain is neither a gun-toting society nor one in which order and security are held ransom by a gun lobby like the one whose activities help to allow so much killing in the United States," but still asks "whether more can be done to flush out illegal weapons" and insists that "if loopholes can be plugged by new laws, so be it."

The Daily Mirror echoed this when it opined that "our gun laws should also be thoroughly reviewed once some of the shock and grief has subsided." The
This has led the BBC's Have Your Say forum to ask the question "Are gun laws tough enough?" The debate, of course, framed within the presupposition that gun laws need to be "tough" in order for the issue of gun violence to be addressed effectively.

Others before me have addressed this fallacy quite eloquently. Notably Neil O'Brien in the Telegraph, who points out the following;
The awful events in Cumbria have sparked fresh discussion about guns. But the truth is that the UK is not a society awash in guns or gun violence. The rate of gun homicide per year is less than one in a million people, compared to 39 per million in the US or 495 per million in Guatemala.

In fact other weapons are far more likely to be used to hurt or kill. Weapons were used in about one in five (21%) of violent crimes last year. Knives were used in 7%, glasses or bottles in 5%, hitting implements in 4% and firearms in just 1% of incidents of violence.

Under Labour gun crime went up, and although it has started to fall back in more recent years, it’s still higher than in 1999, as the chart below shows.

I think it is telling which types of guns are being used in acts of violence. Handguns were used in 4,250 offences during 2008/09, while shotguns were used in just 617 offences. This is despite the fact that after Dunblane, legal handgun ownership is effectively banned, so most of the most of handguns being used in crime are illegally owned.

Thankfully the total number of people killed is lower than the number of incidents in which guns are present – tens of fatalities and hundreds of injuries, as the chart below shows.

There is a powerful link between gun deaths and gun ownership rates, which you can see in the chart below.  But this is mainly because in gun-owning countries more people commit suicide using guns. The Swiss, for example have more guns per head than the Americans, but their gun homicide rate is one eighth of the American level.  The Finnish rate is less than a tenth of the American.

So partly it is about culture, and partly about the kinds of guns people have (rifles and shotguns being less likely to be used for violent purposes than handguns).

The UK has had wave after wave of gun control legislation, in 1968, 1988 and 1997. I’m not sure that there is anything more that can be done in this direction.  There are some really important things we can do to reduce gun and knife crime, much of which is related to criminal gangs. But in terms of gun ownership, the only place left to go is really an outright ban on the ownership of all guns, including shotguns, and I don’t think that is practical.
As so often, then, we find that in practice "tough" and "tight" laws are either ineffective or actively counterproductive.

Going further, the Libertarian Alliance has called for "the relegalisation of civilian gun ownership in the United Kingdom as the only way for ordinary people to protect themselves against gun massacres;"
This outrage will certainly bring calls from the police and other victim disarmament advocacy groups for further gun control. However, bearing in mind that civilian ownership of handguns was outlawed in the two Firearms Acts of 1997, we fail to see, unless the murder weapon was a shotgun, what there is left to be outlawed.

The Libertarian Alliance notes that these shootings would have been extremely difficult in a country where the people were allowed to arm themselves. We understand that the killer, Derrick Bird, was able to drive in perfect safety around Whitehaven, shooting people at random. None of his victims was in any position to return fire. Only when armed police could eventually be brought in did he feel it necessary to run away.

In the United States, at least one campus shooting was brought to a premature end by armed civilians. The same is true in Israel, where many members of the public go about armed. Only in a country like England, where the people have been systematically disarmed, can a killer go about like a fox among chickens.

The Libertarian Alliance believes that all the Firearms Acts from 1920 onwards should be repealed. The largely ineffective laws of 1870 and 1902 should also be repealed. It should once again be possible for adults to walk into a gun shop and, without showing any permit or proof of identity, buy as many guns and as much ammunition as they can afford. They should also be able to use lethal force, at home and in public, for the defence of life, liberty and property.

Only then will ordinary people be safe from evil men like Derrick Bird.
Although I would hold what authoritarians would view as quite similar sentiments (which I will come to), I disagree with the Libertarian Alliance here on two points.

Firstly, the idea that people should be able to use lethal force in defence of property only confirms to me that right-libertarianism is not libertarian at all but merely a privatisation of the monopoly of force employed by the state. Secondly, I do not agree that the United States serves as any kind of rational model for gun liberalisation. This is not because of the right to bear arms itself, but because that right exists within a hysterical culture of fear which actually makes massacres more likely.

With those caveats in place, I see no reason to oppose the idea of a defensive citizen militia.This is, after all, a point that anarchists have argued strongly in favour of, and which we saw put into practice during the Spanish Revolution.

In more immediate terms, what is clear is that what took place was nothing less than a horrendous and inexplicable act. Attempts to find meaning in it will undoubtedly be futile, whilst those who "learn lessons" from the event will largely do so in the name of authoritarian opportunism. Derrick Bird will earn lasting infamy for his actions, but also a place in the hall of boogeymen who prove that we need the state to protect us.

As always, even if it sees us branded as kooks and lunatics, consistent anarchists must argue against hysteria and in favour of reason and liberty.