Inescapable Duty

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 In May 1995, a year before Dunblane, Conservative Minister of State David Maclean told the House of Commons that UK gun law seemed to him to strike, “the right balance between the primary need to ensure the safety of the public and the need to avoid placing unnecessary burdens on legitimate users of firearms.” 1 Two centuries after Blackstone first characterized the right to bear arms as an auxiliary right in support of the prevention of tyranny, the political elite were again talking about guns in the United Kingdom, but this time with the explicitly stated primacy of public safety—legitimate users of firearms were simply a secondary concern. After Dunblane, politicians of all political colors decided that once more, the law had to change in order to protect the safety and security of the public. Conservative Peer Baroness Blatch argued that, “the dreadful tragedy of Dunblane placed on the Government an inescapable duty to consider what controls there should be on the ownership and possession of guns.” 2 On November 27, 1997, 18 months after Thomas Hamilton took the lives of 16 school children and their teacher at Dunblane Primary School, all private handguns became illegal in the United Kingdom.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0 Withdrawing the right to privately own firearms from the vast majority of the public was just one of a number of possible actions that the UK could have taken in the wake of Dunblane. A ban of the kind introduced in the UK has not been touted in the American mainstream since Sandy Hook because it would constitute a violation of a perceived near-natural right; a right that in the UK was only ever understood to be legitimate insofar as it did not violate the right to life of others. This sentiment was expressed powerfully at the time by Michael North, the father of one the children killed in Dunblane: “I have been told by senior politicians that the United Kingdom already has some of the tightest gun laws in the world. This may be so, but they were clearly not tight enough and there is no room for complacency… If you cannot be absolutely certain that every person owning a handgun will be safe, then in my view there is only one possible course of action: the banning of the private use of handguns.” 3

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 In recent years, some right-wing commentators and politicians in the United Kingdom have argued that gun control legislation went too far, describing the blanket ban as “ludicrous.” 4 John Crozier, whose five-year-old daughter Emma was killed in the Dunblane Massacre, responded with anger. He said, “A whole generation have grown up since the handgun ban was introduced and thankfully there have been no more school shootings in Britain. How many lives have been saved? Just look at the USA, where the number of children killed and injured by people with guns in schools and colleges is obscene. It is not the ban on handguns that is ludicrous, it is the foolishness of those who would risk our children’s lives so that a few people can play with guns.” 5

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 While it is important to acknowledge that the UK ban on guns infringed on the rights of legitimate firearms users, it is vital to be clear that these rights had costs. Gun ownership advocates must admit that their position privileges the rights of individuals to privately own and use firearms over and above the “prudential concerns” 6 of the right to life of innocent people—including school children. It is an assumption of the pro-gun position that the right to bear arms trumps the right innocent children have to personal safety; that school shootings are a somehow permissible negative externality associated with an immutable right.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 In an October 2012 speech, retired Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens claimed that “the failure of Congress to take any action to minimize the risk of similar tragedies in the future cannot be blamed on the court’s decision in Heller.” 7 He stated the Second Amendment does not preclude Congress from restricting gun use and ownership further and that, ultimately, the American people still have the ability to reconfigure their relationship to the right to bear arms.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 1 Banning firearms is by no means an overnight decision. One need look no further than the 1993 siege at Waco, Texas to understand the extent to which Americans value their right to bear arms and what happens when this right is called into question. However, the first step towards a new American relationship with the right to bear arms is for all sides to acknowledge the costs associated with the right to own and use firearms. The majority of gun control advocates, at least in mainstream dialogue, have lost sight of, or refuse to engage with, the idea that a gun-free culture might be a desirable paradigm. It is vital that those individuals who are committed to the preservation of a society replete with guns are at the very least forced to face the real consequences of their way of thinking; that a child’s right to life is outweighed by the public’s right to own guns.

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 Notes:

  1. 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0
  2. HC Deb 03 May 1995, vol. 259, cols. 281-8. Accessed at: http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1995/may/03/firearms
  3. HC Deb 04 December 1996, vol. 286, cols. 1161-76. Accessed at: http://hansard.millbanksystems.com/commons/1996/dec/04/consequential-and-minor-amendments
  4. North, Michael. (September 30, 1996). ‘Licence to kill must be revoked.’ Times Higher Education. Retrieved May 20, 2014.
  5. Graham, Georgia. (January 24, 2014). “Hand guns should be legalised and licensed, Nigel Farage has said”. The Telegraph. Retrieved May 20, 2014.
  6. Dunblane victim’s father angry over Farage’s stance on firearms”. STV News. (January 26, 2014). Retrieved May 20, 2014.
  7. United States of America v. Emerson, 270 F.3d 203 (5th Cir. 2001). Accessed at: http://www.constitution.org/uslaw/emerson.htm
  8. Stevens, John Paul. (October 15, 2012). “Brady Center to Prevent Gun Violence Legal Action Project Luncheon”. Speech presented at The Capital Hilton, Washington D.C. 
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Source: http://ppj.matrix.msu.edu/a-tale-of-two-nations/inescapable-duty/