FLC004, They Were Stuffed: How not to Stand up for Guns in England, 5th October 1997

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Free Life Commentary,
an independent journal of comment published on the Internet

Issue Number 4
5th October 1997

They Were Stuffed:
How Not to Stand up for Guns in England
by Sean Gabb

I have just finished watching a video of Thursday Night Live from the 2nd October. This is a studio debate programme broadcast from London by Carlton Television. There were two debates last Thursday. The first was on paedophilia, and the second on guns. It is this second that I wish to discuss. It says much about the degraded level of public debate in England, and about the contribution made to this by the shooting lobby.

The Format of Debate

The programme was presented by Andrew Neil and Nicky Campbell. This second is an expert in the non-debate. Before I learned better, I took part in several of his shows when he worked for Central Television in Birmingham. I never saw anything discussed here. His audiences, carefully fired up beforehand on self-righteousness and drink, would be led into the studio and then encouraged to scream themselves hoarse for 20 minutes. I once heard someone call him the British Ricki Lake. This was an insult to Ms Lake, who always manages to organise a debate, even if it is among lunatics and morons.

He was not in charge of this debate. His job was to read out the telephone calls and e-mails from the viewers. In charge was Mr Neil, who is able to keep a semblance of order in the studio. This being said, he is a quite wretched man. He fills every newspaper he edits with trash. While employed by Rupert Murdoch at The Sunday Times, he serialised Andrew Morton's book on the Princess of Wales. He now edits a Scottish newspaper, and not the smallest benefit of Scottish independence might be his entire absence from the English media.

Their gun debate was a classic of its kind. Every means available was used to demonise the shooters. The coupling of this debate with the earlier one on paedophilia is an obvious example. Shooters are to be seen as monsters lurking beyond the fringe of respectable society. Thomas Hamilton is alleged to have had a taste for boys. Ever since Dunblane, the media has been full of junk psychology about the sexual drives of shooters. Without risking a law suit—without stating any proposition in a form that could easily be discussed in a studio, the arrangement of the debates was a reminder of the smear.

Then there was the internal agenda of debate. This also had been biassed in advance. The real case for guns is that they are good for killing aggressors against life, liberty and property. A people cannot be enslaved while it is armed. An occupied house is less likely to be burgled when the owners are known to be armed. Muggers and rapists are thin on the ground in those cities where people are allowed to go about armed. Laws that deny ordinary people access to guns have no overall effect on crime. They can only disarm the law-abiding, while leaving criminals—public as well as private - free to arm as they please.

Guns have a secondary purpose in that shooting has become a sport more or less removed from killing people. But it is for killing that they were developed, and it is their killing power in the proper hands that makes preserving the right to keep and bear them so important.

Yet the debate was not about self-defence. The researchers had called various shooters and let them talk about self-defence. A day before, however, these shooters were called again and stood down. Only those willing to talk about Olympic medals were allowed onto the programme.

I doubt if there had been any intention to let self-defence be raised in favour of guns. Usually, the Libertarian Alliance is invited to attend these debates. Our position is well-known: we care nothing about the medals, and everything about self-defence. If I am not able to go on, David Botsford is available. Neither of us was called. Therefore, it is a fair assumption that the agenda of debate had been set from the very beginning.

The Debate

There was no similar restraint on the victim disarmers. These were allowed to whine on in the usual manner. There was Michael Mansfield, a lawyer who can be trusted to take the statist line on just about every issue. Tonight, he was down on guns, explaining that he had been shot with an airgun when he was seven—a shame, I thought, it had not been a shotgun. There was a lefty sociologist wearing a moustache that might have been chic when he grew it in the 1970s but which now just looked pathetic. He came out with some absurd claim that the number of gun shops in Britain increased by one per cent during 1996—a claim so at variance with my own observation that I suspect it was beyond even the bounds of academic massaging. There was someone who had served 24 years for armed robbery. He was quite firm that ordinary people should not be allowed to arm themselves—a reasonable view for him to take, I suppose, a prison cell being a nicer place to go for his crimes than a morgue.

Mr Neil added to the fun, rushing about the studio shouting "But we don't want to have guns in our society". He might reply that he was simply provoking comment. But he was really stating another proposition that could not be discussed within the rules of a studio debate. It would have required someone to examine the degree of control that "we" ought to have over "our society"—to what extent a ruling class should be able to extinguish basic human rights. Substitute "Jews" for "guns", and the enormity of the principle behind the statement will be clear.

A few minutes later, he rounded on someone who dared argue with one of the parents of the murdered children at Dunblane. "This man has lost a child" he cried in outrage. Grief is to be respected, to be sure—but not when it is used as a cover for advancing half-baked and dangerous notions.

Mike Yardley of the Sportsman's Association did his best to defend shooting within the constraints imposed on him. But he got nowhere. "We've been stuffed" I heard him cry off camera as Messrs Neil and Campbell wound up the proceedings. And stuffed they had been.

The Shooters

Even so, it was their own fault. None of them should have consented to go on that programme with those constraints. I have been howled down in radio and television studios when talking about guns. But I have nearly always managed to say what I thought. I have never given myself up to the enemy bound hand and foot. It is not as if this were the only available forum for the shooters. There are hundreds of other studios. There are newspaper columns. Above all, there is the Internet. They should not have gone on that programme. If enough of them had pulled out, it would have been cancelled, providing a clear gain to the case for guns. At the least, they should have promised to keep quiet about self- defence, and then broken their promise the moment the cameras began rolling. Messrs Campbell and Neil would then have been forced either to accept the fait accompli, or to shut them up, so clearly admitting the programme's true agenda.

On the other hand, how many of these shooters would have taken advantage of an open debate? For reasons of cowardice and stupidity, most British shooting organisations during the past 30 years have settled on a line of defence that would make a village idiot cry with laughter. It was this line that we heard last Thursday. One after the other, the shooters insisted on how boring and unenjoyable handguns really were. Squeezing a trigger, they said, had no thrill. There was simply a chaste satisfaction when the target was holed in the middle. Anyone who felt otherwise was soon frozen out of the gun clubs.

Carol Page, an Olympic shooter and victim disarmer's dream, went further. Her gun, she said, had been made for shooting at targets, not people—as if people did not also make perfectly good targets. When asked if she should not give up her sport in order to prevent another Dunblane, she fell straight into the trap, with a claim for the right to practise her skill that made her appear a selfish, heartless bitch. No one thought to ask how taking her gun away was likely to disarm the Liverpool crack dealers.

The Horror

England is not a country with a tradition of tyranny. It was for centuries the wonder of foreign observers, with its combination of personal freedom and political stability. It is the country of John Hampden, on John Locke and Algernon Sydney, of John Trenchard, of Macaulay and Herbert Spencer and John Stuart Mill. Within its liberal tradition are Hume and Adam Smith and Edmund Burke—and even Thomas Jefferson and George Washington, whatever their argument with a British Government.

But what is England now? It is a nation of statist sheep. It is not just guns. Whether with drugs, or healthcare, or education—or increasingly with speech and publication—ordinary people are no longer trusted to behave morally or with common sense. And ordinary people accept their new status, and even glory in it.

I used to pity Cicero and Tacitus. They were conservatives who had the misfortune to live during or after the death of the traditions they wanted to conserve. I doubt if my own writings will survive as well as theirs have. But as I grow older in the pc despotism that my country has become, I feel less pity for them than community with them. The horror is upon us, and is devouring everything that was good and worth dying for.