¶ 3 Leave a comment on paragraph 3 0 Peterson and Preston’s (2014) discussion paper is timely and important. Important because it raises pressing US policy questions and timely because history has demonstrated that in the US this is an issue that will not go away. Here, I support the majority of their argument, but make a few observations relating to the British case on which they are perhaps not as well versed. This is very much in the spirit of continuing the discussion and providing an evidence-base for future informed decision-making at the policy level.
¶ 4 Leave a comment on paragraph 4 0 The authors open with the Dunblane massacre. This tragedy led to the ban on the private ownership of handguns and semi-automatic firearms in the UK and therefore is an important marker point. However, prior and subsequent policy is perhaps over-delineated. For example, prior to this, ownership of such firearms was not ‘easily accessible’ and such firearms were not banned entirely afterwards (as the authors acknowledge). The actual extent to which the system was overhauled (made ‘highly-controlled’) is not discussed in detail (for example vets and some deer managers retained permission to own). Hence there becomes here a danger to assume an equity in the accessibility of firearms across both the UK and US. Furthermore, in the US case of the Lanza shootings, the details of how Lanza obtained his mother’s firearms are not explored, nor the security requirements in place at her home or required by the then storage safety laws. Importantly, he was not (unlike Hamilton in the UK) the registered owner. The comparison between US and UK contexts here is useful, but merits mining into further detail if insight is to be gained. I am unclear as to what they mean by the phrase the ‘public consolidation of individual liberties’ although the different policy and cultural reactions and contexts to such tragedies in the US and UK contexts is where the main contribution of their paper lies.
¶ 5 Leave a comment on paragraph 5 0 Culturally, in the UK there is currently an interest in the Magna Carta and its history and legacy in its 800th year. This would have been the touchstone of English law that, as a sociologist, I would have looked to rather than the 17th century civil war and its aftermath. As Smith (2006) discusses, this would arguably be the earliest instance where the state (not the king) was taking control of previous individually managed rights/ responsibilities. We should, too, note the technical weaponry of each period and that how legally privately owned firearms in the UK (the vast majority of which are shotguns, not rifles) are not weapons of mass warfare, which contrasts with the firepower legally available in the US). For instance, post Dunblane, semi-automatic (pump-action shotguns) are now limited to a maximum of three cartridges, very different to the magazine-loaded firearms still permitted in the US. A secondary useful (and increasingly relevant) distinction between Scotland and England and firearm licensing distinctions is made. Currently, the frameworks around sporting shooting now need to be taken into account across England, Wales and Scotland governments.
¶ 6 Leave a comment on paragraph 6 0 Peterson and Preston move on to focus upon the subsequent constitutions in the UK and US contexts. Centrally that Britain lacks such a formally articulated constitution/ overt statement of values, hence the onus (to use the argument made at the Sport, Politics and Social Policy Conference hosted at Durham in 2015) is that it celebrates generic rights, unless a given activity has been expressly prohibited or excluded. Hence they are correct to state the US’ Second Amendment is in contrast a more explicit statement and formalisation of that right (to bear arms) for the US, whereas in the UK the emphasis is upon a much broader sweep of generic rights or freedoms left implicit or assumed. This distinction proves significant.
¶ 7 Leave a comment on paragraph 7 0 The argument traces the direction of travel. The phrasing used is interesting, the ‘privilege’ of citizenship in the US includes the right to bear arms, whereas it is alluded to/ implicit in the UK (as the UK lacks a charter on the same scale). Hence, the UK legal framework is subtler – the individual can expect to be able to legally own firearms, unless the application system proves them unsuitable. As Peterson and Preston (2014:4) summarise, the ‘right to bear arms has evolved to the point [in the US] where it is held as a near-natural right – alongside life, liberty and estate.’ This allows the complexity of the debate to be unfolded – the implication of different attitudes towards ownership for policy. Namely, that the implications of the implicit ‘right’ in the UK is currently misunderstood by some politicians involved in firearm policy in the UK. These politicians have adopted their own, default position which is opposed and therefore both ill-informed and also contrary to the current legal framework in the UK. Hence when Peterson and Preston argue legal ownership is ‘decreasingly relevant’ in the UK (p. 4) there is an irony – it has indeed become so culturally and a consequence of which ignorance and some personal has prejudiced. In this context, where avoidable tragedies in the UK context have occurred, this situation is not helpful and hence re-visiting the history of the debate and its background is vital and timely.
¶ 8 Leave a comment on paragraph 8 0 The discussion moved into territories of firearm use in self-defence and because of the difference in the US to UK contexts – where a key element of current UK policy is the prevention of harm to others/ public safety and hence the central remit of the Police – it is a key nuance in their argument. The discussion moves rapidly across legislative changes (with an over-reliance on one text for the British situation). Here I felt more significant is the administration of restrictions – significantly by the Police. The argument by Smith (2006) is useful here, the State expanding its remit into the control of individuals – Elias’ civilising process – the process by which individuals remain able to possess firearms legally was not attacked, but bureaucratised. In effect, Weber’s iron-cage morphing into a steel gun-cabinet/ safe for the storage of firearms held by private owners. Hence I felt it inaccurate to suggest that in the UK it had become an auxiliary right used on rare occasions. It is not. The post-WWI period is also better understood as a means to attempt to extend the State’s registration of weapons – to bring these under the purview of the State. i.e. to capture the number of ‘trophy’ weapons brought back into the country (to the extent that this was realistically feasible).
¶ 9 Leave a comment on paragraph 9 0 The final section of Peterson and Preston’s argument offers a richer understanding of the US than the UK context and hence sometimes over-states their differences, i.e. the perception of guns in the UK as a ‘threat’ to basic rights. In the UK shotguns cannot be acquired for the purposes of self-defence (hence threated basic rights), but nevertheless the case example discussed of Martin would easily have obtained legal ownership as a farmer, his good character not withstanding. Therefore their suggestion that Martin’s ‘right to bear arms’ was superseded by the burglar’s right to life compounds the earlier errors of the paper that incorrectly we assumed lack a right in the UK to possess arms. Rather there is more cultural-awareness of/ familiarity with firearms in the US. This seems an unimportant cultural distinction until you consider in the UK both leisure and professional use of privately-owned firearms. Indeed, this was one of the founding motives underpinning the creation of the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation (NGO) in 1997, who were concerned about public mis-understanding and poor representation of their profession – one dependent upon the legal ownership of firearms. Reform in the UK and public support also needs to be evaluated in the light that firearms enjoy less culturally-enshrined familiarity/ visibility in the UK. A more penetrating secondary observation that resonates with contemporary issues in the UK is the locale (i.e. city-based) right to legislate in the US context. In the UK, there has similarly been some attempt by regional Constabularies (who are tasked with delivering policy) to introduce additional measures in the application process that exceed the Home Office guidelines (and hence are unlawful). The consistency of the delivery of policy is vital in the UK context and even moreso for legislature delivery in the US.
¶ 10 Leave a comment on paragraph 10 0 The metaphor struck towards their conclusion – that killings in the US have effectively become akin to background noise (lesser somehow to the right to bear arms) – is a powerful and the strongest point in the piece. Key here is also reading these as black swan events – i.e. the extent to which they can be predicted. Any such predictions will be fallible as they are subject to human error, hence there is a risk that any legislation based upon such predictions will be equally problematic, or worse over-interpret such outlier events and use them as a basis for generic policy (Lawless 2013). It reminds us that there is a need to remain mindful that any shootings must differentiate between legal and illegal owners. The appeal to Newman’s argument that guns are a necessary condition for shootings to happen is tautological/ teleological. Banning the legal ownership of firearms in the UK will not eradicate gun crime because the vast majority of such crimes are perpetrated using illegally held firearms and many UK statistics fail to capture this nuance. This final issue of monitoring or of intelligence surrounding legal owners is very difficult given the both urban, but largely rural, settings in which owners are located. Does being ‘under the radar,’ as they put it, within a community mean you are dangerous?! Whether a gun-free culture is a desirable paradigm, in my view, differs across these two, distinct contexts. My own view is that there is nothing intrinsically dangerous about guns themselves, rather it is their (safe) use that is key.
¶ 11 Leave a comment on paragraph 11 0 To conclude, the issue of the political elites’ involvement – where they leave the conversation – is integral. Whilst the two main British political parties supported reform following Dunblane, the UK political landscape has shifted in its attitude towards countrysports, notably following the hunting ban over ten years ago. Public safety is no longer the primary UK policy imperative and there is no privilege as articulated (even celebrated) in the US. The issues discussed by Peterson and Preston and here by other commentators (such as Squires 2015) is therefore highly timely, albeit more challenging for the US system.
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My thanks to the participants at the PSA conference at Durham in 2015 (notably the stream on sport and legal frameworks), David Wall for discussions on the leisure/ professional distinction and ‘black swan’ events, John Hensby and Peter Squires for informal conversations on this topic and gun ownership more broadly.
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Lawless, C. (2013) The low template DNA profiling controversy: Biolegality and boundary work among forensic scientists. Social Studies of Science 43(2): 191-214.
¶ 15 Leave a comment on paragraph 15 0 Squires, P. (2015) Guns, harm and public safety: divergent paths. A response to ‘A tale of two nations.’ Public Philosophy Journal [accessed 22 January 2015]