Sunday, October 13, 2013

Gun Control in Britain

The precise meaning of the Second Amendment to the Constitution is debatable. One of the arguments made in support of a broad right to possess guns is based on the assumption that this right had been firmly established in English legal tradition. Since the writers of the Constitution were predominately of English heritage, they must have intended this tradition to continue. That makes sense. However, "the right to bear arms" can mean quite different things to different countries.

An article in The Economist titled Guns for hire indicated that when it comes to guns we in the US live in a quite different world than the British. Guns that could be of use to a criminal are so rare that when one wishes to have a gun to commit a crime the principle option available is to rent one from another criminal.

"In A turf war in Birmingham, the two gangs involved used the same gun for their tit-for-tat shootings, renting it in turn from the same third party, says Martin Parker, head of forensics at the National Ballistics Intelligence Service (NABIS). The paucity of guns in Britain is both testament to the success of its gun-control regime and one of the reasons for it."

The NABIS organization is part of the anti-crime establishment. It creates a database on the ballistic characteristics of all guns encountered in an attempt to be able to correlate any bullet recovered with a given weapon. Since essentially all handguns are illegal in Britain, this is a practical task; and since scarce weapons tend to be reused by criminals, it is useful in establishing evidence in criminal cases.

"Shortages also mean criminals use weapons repeatedly, leaving a useful trail of evidence. Some, like the Birmingham gangsters, hire them from others. Clean guns—ones that have not been used before—are both rare and expensive. Other countries, such as Ireland and Spain, use the same database system, allowing NABIS to share information and track guns beyond Britain’s borders. America uses it too, but tracking the guns used in crimes there would be a Sisyphean task: few guns are used repeatedly there because it is so easy to buy new ones. Gun-starved Britons cannot be so cavalier."

It is informative to view how "the right to bear arms" has evolved in Britain. Wikipedia provides an excellent summary of that history.

Yes, British subjects did have the right to bear arms, and that right was provided so that guns could be used in self-defense, but the right of the crown to limit access to weapons was at least as strong as the right of ownership. During one of the main squabbles over succession, the then ascendant Catholics tried to confiscate the arms of the Protestants. That did not end well. As a result the right to possess weapons for self defense was restated in the Bill of Rights in this manner:

"Declare,....That the Subjects which are Protestants may have Arms for their Defence, suitable to their Condition, and as allowed by Law."

This right was similarly noted in Blackstone’s Commentaries, the recognized basis for common law in England and also in the American colonies—soon to become the United States of America.

"The fifth and last auxiliary right of the subject, that I shall at present mention, is that of having arms for their defence, suitable to their condition and degree, and such as are allowed by law."

A law based on such a statement might be ruled unconstitutional in the US because it could be said to be inconsistent with the intent of the country’s founders, even though the country’s founders based the US’s initial legal system on English Common Law and particularly on Blackstone’s description of it.

The British approach to possession of weapons is tied closely to their historical concerns about insurrections. The potential for class-based strife has always been an issue. England itself has also often been threatened with internal acts of violence as it tried to keep England, Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland, and Ireland under one big tent. The result has been a populace willing to accept limitations on access to weapons. Even with strict controls in place, the British have endured significant acts of violence. The response has always been to institute ever more stringent restrictions.

This is what is involved in acquiring a gun license in Britain.

"With a few specialised exceptions, all firearms in the United Kingdom must be licensed on either a 5-year firearm certificate (FAC) or a shotgun certificate (SGC)issued by the police for the area in which they normally reside."

"When applying for a firearm certificate, justification must be provided to the police for each firearm, and they are individually listed on the certificate by type, calibre, and serial number. A shotgun certificate similarly lists type, calibre and serial number, but permits possession of as many shotguns as can be safely accommodated. To gain permission for a new firearm, a "variation" must be sought, for a fee, unless the variation is made at the time of renewal, or unless it constitutes a one-for-one replacement of an existing firearm that will be disposed of. The certificate also sets out, by calibre, the maximum quantities of ammunition someone may buy or possess at any one time, and is used to record ammunition purchases (except where ammunition is bought to use immediately on a range under s11 or s15 of the Firearms Act)."

Not only are weapons controlled but ammunition as well.

To obtain this firearm certificate, the process is rather more involved than just checking a person’s name on a national database.

"To obtain a firearm certificate, the police must be satisfied that a person has "good reason" to own each firearm, and that they can be trusted with it "without danger to the public safety or to the peace". Under Home Office guidelines, firearms certificates are only issued if a person has legitimate sporting, collecting, or work-related reasons for ownership. Since 1968, self-defence has not been considered a valid reason to own a firearm. The current licensing procedure involves: positive verification of identity, two referees of verifiable good character who have known the applicant for at least two years (and who may themselves be interviewed and/or investigated as part of the certification), approval of the application by the applicant's own family doctor, an inspection of the premises and cabinet where firearms will be kept and a face-to-face interview by a Firearms Enquiry Officer (FEO) also known as a Firearms Liaison Officer (FLO). A thorough background check of the applicant is then made by Special Branch on behalf of the firearms licensing department. Only when all these stages have been satisfactorily completed will a licence be issued, which must be renewed every 5 years."

The notion that people in the US believe they should have the right to walk around openly carrying loaded weapons must be viewed with astonishment in Britain. This occurred in December, 2012 in Connecticut:

"A 20-year-old man wearing combat gear and armed with semiautomatic pistols and a semiautomatic rifle killed 26 people — 20 of them children — in an attack in an elementary school in central Connecticut on Friday. Witnesses and officials described a horrific scene as the gunman, with brutal efficiency, chose his victims in two classrooms while other students dove under desks and hid in closets."

"Hundreds of terrified parents arrived as their sobbing children were led out of the Sandy Hook Elementary School in a wooded corner of Newtown, Conn. By then, all of the victims had been shot and most were dead, and the gunman, identified as Adam Lanza, had committed suicide. The children killed were said to be 5 to 10 years old."

The government’s response to this act has yet to occur. Gun-rights activists were moved to conclude that such events would be less likely to occur if every citizen was armed at all times (5 to 10 year-olds?).

This incident, referred to as the Dunblane Massacre, occurred in Britain in 1996.

"On 13 March 1996, Thomas Hamilton, aged 43, a former scout leader who had been ousted by The Scout Association in 1974, shot dead sixteen young children and their teacher, Gweneth Mayor, in Dunblane Primary School's gymnasium with two Browning Hi-Power 9 mm pistols and two S&W .357 Magnum revolvers. He then shot himself."

As a result of this incident the police improved their communications between different departments and instituted more complete background checks. Then the nation went much further and passed the 1997 Firearms Act.

"Following the Dunblane massacre, the government passed the Firearms (Amendment) (No. 2) Act 1997, banning private possession of handguns almost completely. Exceptions to the ban include muzzle-loading "black powder" guns, pistols produced before 1917, pistols of historical interest (such as pistols used in notable crimes, rare prototypes, unusual serial numbers and so on), starting pistols, pistols that are of particular aesthetic interest (such as engraved or jewelled guns) and shot pistols for pest control."

So complete is this ban on handguns that British shooting teams must leave the country to practice for international competitions. Special dispensation had to be issued by the government before the relevant shooting events in the 2012 Olympics could proceed. Handguns are intended for killing, not for sport.

How can two nations with so much in common develop such different approaches to handling firearms? One could make a good argument that life in the USA as it expanded and matured required a more robust relationship with weapons than life in the closed and contained Britain. However, there are times when one might suspect that the British kicked all their crazies out of the country and sent them to America to breed their little crazies over there. Once the transmission was complete, they then encouraged the American colonies to revolt so that they could be done with them forever.

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