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Guns, Harm and Public Safety: Divergent Paths

1 Leave a comment on paragraph 1 0 Peter Squires
Professor of Criminology & Public Policy
University of Brighton. UK.

2 Leave a comment on paragraph 2 0  

3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Following the British Security Services’ decision to elevate the UK terrorism threat assessment to ‘SEVERE’, the week beginning Nov 24th 2014 became known as ‘terrorism awareness week’. Rather more than coincidentally, the British Home Office also announced an expanded new package of anti-terrorism powers and new surveillance measures to address ‘radicalisation’ and ‘domestic extremism’. While all this was going on, police in London targeted transport hubs distributing a new anti-terrorism leaflet advising people what to do in the event of a Mumbai style weapons attack or a bombing. “Run and Hide” the leaflet suggested. Photographs on the leaflet appeared to show panicked commuters pouring down staircases or huddled together in fear in a dark secluded basement.

4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 Criticised on the one hand for ‘scaremongering’ and, on the other hand, for stating the obvious, the British terrorism awareness leaflets play into the kind of paranoid NRA nightmare which Peterson and Preston’s persuasive and highly original analysis of the diverging paths, followed by Britain and the USA from their common roots in the English Bill of Rights of 1689, goes some way to explain. Fairly typical of the genre, Snyder’s original 1993 essay ‘A Nation of Cowards’ berated those who lacked either the moral fibre or the civic virtue to ‘keep and bear arms’ for personal and collective defence. Snyder’s arguments, anticipating many later claims voiced, inter alia, by the NRA leadership (‘only armed people are free people’) and 2nd Amendment Foundation academics keen to convert the US 2nd Amendment into a ‘human right’, correspond to a distinction drawn in 2000 between an American ‘republican individualism’ and a British ‘collective paternalism’ (Squires, 2000). To republican individualists, the sight of free citizens fleeing in fear in the face of armed terrorist aggression represents complete anathema; to them, apparently, the 2nd Amendment is Homeland Security.

5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Yet despite such ideal-typical distinctions, between ‘republican individualism’ and ‘collective paternalism’, one or two caveats are called for. The reactions of New Yorkers and Londoners to the respective outrages of 9/11 and 7/7 were not so different; the response of the Boston police and FBI to the city bombing of 2013, and the subsequent terrorist manhunt, closely resembled similar policing operations in the UK. Significantly, Boston residents were advised to ‘stay indoors’; there was no comparable armed civic mobilisation as might be witnessed on the Arizona border where Minutemen muster to repel Latino ‘illegals’ (Shapira, 2013). But then, neither is Boston a heartland of gun owning republicanism.

6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Such points also underscore some important differences of approach and academic perspective. Peterson and Preston develop their highly original analysis via philosophy and the history of ideas before showing how contrasting social contexts (the frontier and its very real ‘state of nature’ as contrasted with an urbanising Britain) entailed quite differing social contexts in which J.S. Mill’s utilitarian liberalism and its ‘harm principle’ worked itself out. In frontier conditions, the original ‘state of nature’, where life was cheap and the law distant, freedom lay in armed empowerment whereas danger lay in retreat or disarmament (Brown, 1991), a form of weakness. By contrast English freedoms lay in a more collective sense of social order, an argument which had already been influential amongst the new urban middle classes in Sir Robert Peel’s proposal to establish an organised system of police in London. 1

7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 From this distinction the British ‘right’ to arms was subordinated to a much firmer conception of the public interest, (beginning with the explicit denunciation of Catholics) lately refracted through the lens of social class, which saw the British working class armed and militarised to fight wars abroad and defend the empire (Beckett, 1982) before being mobilised en masse from 1914, demobilised in 1918, then disarmed by 1920, for fear that they might follow the Russian example of 1917 (Squires, 2000: 43).

8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 Yet, despite quite fundamental differences, neither society envisaged unrestricted firearm rights or absolute prohibitions. Here we might switch focus to my own more empirical and criminological focus; in this case we are less interested with the ‘abstract’ force of ideas in history than with the messy terrain and often social struggles in which they find themselves caught up. As I have argued elsewhere (Squires, 2014: 6, 10) criminology generally begins with the crime scene before tracking upstream into interactions, motives, causes and cultures, this can throw light upon the patterns of firearm possession, use and misuse and likewise a society’s firearms laws. Legislation, or gun control, often reflects different social circumstances and social fractures. Following this line might prompt some rather controversial conclusions bearing directly upon some contemporary dilemmas of gun politics in the USA (from ‘Stand your Ground’ to Ferguson, Missouri in 2014).

9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 In the British case, however, social class proved decisive (and still does); it explains, for example, the tolerant eye turned towards country house gun ownership even after 1937 2 and, more recently, the field shooting fraternity’s willingness to sacrifice the hand-gunners on the altar of public outrage after 1996.   In the USA, by contrast, a domestic civil war (one can detach the first part of Bellesiles’ (2000) argument from the second and accept that the Civil War – as is the case with all wars – was a major contributor to the weaponisation of the continent in the latter half of the 19th century), restrictions on organised crime (Helmer, 1970) and, above all, concerns about race and social disorder continued to shape the US gun control priorities. Although, in its abbreviated modernist reincarnation, framed expansively – ‘the right to bear arms shall not be infringed’ – in fact, since New York’s 1911 Sullivan law, the 2nd Amendment has frequently faced a much more selective, localised, racist and discriminatory, interpretation and application. Armed African Americans exercising their right of self-defence (Boyle, 2004; Floyd, 2008), rather like recent female victims of domestic abuse seeking to use Stand your Ground laws to protect themselves, have found the law to be quite perversely selective (Franks, 2014).

10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 All of which provides interesting context to the late 20th century resumption of hostilities concerning the US gun debate. Some commentators credit developments within the NRA itself, drawing a line between the Cincinnati ‘revolt’ of 1977 when a group gun rights hardliners gained control of the NRA leadership (Davidson, 1993; Winkler, 2011), then organising to promote legal, historical and constitutional research and scholarship sympathetic to an individualist interpretation of the ‘right to bear arms’ (Bogus, 2000), all the way through to Justice Scalia’s paradoxical ‘conservative judicial activism’ in the 2008 Heller judgement (Scalia, 2008). More broadly, the insights offered by sociologist David Garland in his cultural study of ‘American exceptionalism’ and the resumption of executions following the Furman vs Georgia moratorium (Garland, 2005; 2010). Thus, while for Garland, history, constitutional scholarship, the ‘wild west’ and the frontier culture of cowboy honour promulgated by Hollywood, may serve as a colourful backdrop to the contemporary gun politics, the primacy of gun rights today and specifically the increasing militarisation of the civilian gun stock (combat handguns and assault weapons), ‘is a contingent outcome of political, legal and cultural developments that occurred in the last thirty years’ (Garland, 2005: 362; see Squires, 2014: 152).

11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 While participants in these debates might draw upon a range of ideas culled from American history, or self-determination through force of arms, the underlying cultural reasons for late modern self-defence firearm advocacy and the ‘I don’t dial 911’ discourse (Carlson, 2012) had more to do with the populist concerns of ageing, white middle-class males (the most typical of gun owners) and their contemporary concerns about rising crime, personal vulnerability, confidence in the police, latent racism and the state of America (Melzer, 2007). Add to this a neo-liberal turn in political culture favouring private solutions and individual responsibility for social problems, an increasing politicisation of crime control (Simon, 2007) and a rising punitive attitude towards offenders, invariably cross-cut with a racialised ‘dog-whistle’ politics inclined to see the crime problem in profoundly racial terms (Miller, 2008). It is then but a short step to the heated politics of racially capricious ‘Stand your Ground’ self defense rights, a legacy of police shootings of African American ‘fleeing felons’, the forty-one bullets fired by four New York police officers at Amadou Diallou (nineteen of which struck him) in 1999, and the shooting, earlier this year, of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, prompting substantial protests and rioting. That such incidents are not uniquely American, although quite different in scale and frequency, might be borne out by the days of rioting across six different cities in the summer of 2011 in England, following the police shooting of Mark Duggan in August 2011.

12 Leave a comment on paragraph 12 0 All of this goes some way to underscore Peterson and Preston’s account of the ‘collateral damage’ entailed by the US gun culture, especially in regard to where the costs and consequences of gun violence lie. In any given year suicides, predominantly of older white males, significantly outnumber homicides, typically of young black males. Suicides are often completely overlooked as part of the wider gun problem, inner-city shootings of young African American are frequently relegated to the status of minor stories, the daily noise of volume crime. Twenty African American children killed every day in the ghetto barely raises a headline, but twenty young white children killed in their school becomes the defining issue for a presidential term, threatening, if only for a moment, to melt the political permafrost settled upon US gun politics.

13 Leave a comment on paragraph 13 0 Echoing Peterson and Preston, the strongly contrasting conceptions of harm embraced by US ‘republican individualists’ and British ‘collective paternalists’ have been the animating force in the two major set piece debates in which I have participated in recent years. The first concerned an International Symposium on self-defense organised by a number of NRA academics in 2005 at George Mason University Law School at Arlington. The only European present, I found myself arguing against the symposium contention that the 2nd Amendment could provide a foundation for a putative human right of self-defense. My argument (Squires, 2006), consistent with J.S. Mill’s liberal consequentialism, was that public safety did not lie in the right to shoot apparently threatening strangers, but in not needing to do so. Indeed, as I argued, there were some pretty profound and harmfully anti-social consequences following from living in an armed and mutually dangerous association where the inclination to shoot first was uppermost. A second similar engagement, an hour-long televised debate with NRA executive Vice-President took place in March 2012 in London. The NRA agenda, they were hoping to make a film featuring La Pierre defeating some hapless academic ‘gun grabber’, involved an attack on the UN Arms Control process, to which President Obama, unlike his predecessor, had committed the US. La Pierre, veteran of many such debates, made the familiar NRA argument that the only free people ‘who had ever walked the earth’ were armed people. My response, akin to the earlier Arlington debate, was that real freedom did not rest in the right to kill others, but rather in not perceiving a need to do so. Freedom did not lie in an armed and dangerous world. The debate did not go La Pierre’s way; the London audience were not convinced (Squires, 2012). But nine months later the NRA’s Executive VP was facing a press conference a week after the Sandy Hook school shooting in Connecticut. ‘Only a good guy with a gun’, he urged, ‘could offer protection against a bad guy with a gun.’ Even laws become unnecessary; La Pierre takes us back to the ‘state of nature’ on the lawless frontier. Outside the constraints of a B movie western, few thinking people would see the world in such ‘black and white’ terms; and certainly no criminologists.

14 Leave a comment on paragraph 14 0 Notes:

  1. 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0
  2. ‘Liberty does not consist in having your home robbed by organised gangs of thieves.’ Letter from Robert Peel to the Duke of Wellington, 5 Nov 1829, quoted in English Historical Documents, 1959
  3. Nothing in the British 1937 Firearms Act prohibits gun ownership for self-defence, this was achieved only gradually as an aspect of discretionary local police decision-making. First the urban working classes were disarmed, only later did the country-dwelling elite face similar scrutiny. Even then, participation in country sports shooting allowed rural elites a convenient rationale for retaining their firearms.
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Source: http://ppj.matrix.msu.edu/responses-to-a-tale-of-two-nations/squires/