From Free Life, Issue 25, May 1996
ISSN: 0260 5112

Editorial: A Time to be Depressed
by Sean Gabb

As I write, news is coming though on the wireless of a mad gunman in Tasmania. Twenty people are said to have been killed, and many more wounded. It will not have the same effect on opinion in this country as the Dunblane massacre, but it will add to the existing reaction. There will be more encouragement of people to hand in their guns at the local Police Station. There will be a toughening of the draft Firearms Bill promised for the early summer. Whether this really will ban the keeping of guns at home, it will certainly make them harder for ordinary people to obtain.

To do so, of course, will not reduce the number of criminal shootings. There might be fewer Thomas Hamiltons - though I do not think there are many of these already. But there will be no fewer armed robbers and gangland "executioners". Indeed, so far as these might be deterred even by a public so little armed as ours currently is, there will be more of them.

The real effect of a new Firearms Act will be to mark another stage in the collapse of English freedom. The more disarmed we are, the more armed criminals can move among us like a fox among chickens. The more this happens, the more we shall cry for protection to the authorities that disarmed us in the first place. In the short term, this will mean more powers of arrest and search, and more video cameras in the streets. In the medium term, it will mean identity cards. In the longer term, it will mean electronic tagging and surveillance, and efforts to isolate and remove whatever gene might be supposed to incline one to criminal behaviour.

Now, given the elegance of this scheme, it is hard not to believe in conspiracies. It is even tempting to believe in them. They not only explain, but also give comfort. For all their cunning and malevolence, conspirators have the disadvantage of being a minority. They can be exposed, and thereby frustrated. Inside every conspiracy theorist is an optimist, never more than three steps from utopia. However, the truth is more depressing. There are surely people now calling for greater gun control who know that it cannot work as promised, and who do so for motives that range from the selfish to the sinister. But these people are not the source of the problem. The real source is a wilfully ignorant public. There are millions of people in this country who take it as common sense that limiting the availability of guns will also reduce the amount of armed crime; and who will not listen when told otherwise. And this does not stand alone. It is just another instance of the more general belief, that government action is the answer to every misfortune.

The belief would be funny were its effects not so dangerous. A few children are bitten by dogs. As if this were a new and alarming thing, the public demands and the politicians supply the most imbecile law of the decade. A ferry sinks because someone left the door open. Half the passengers are too drunk to notice what is happening, and some of them drown. The result - actual controls that make crossing the Channel less of an adventure, and a demand for controls that would make it far more expensive. A Minister tells us that most eggs are bad. After the first wild panic, the Government has to make a food handling law that shuts down thousands of catering businesses, and makes food poisoning more rather than less common. Last month, the public got into a sweat about guns. Then it turned to mad cows. From today, it will be thinking about guns again.

Of course, nations have flourished with far greater handicaps than the Dangerous Dogs Act and the prohibition of wooden chopping boards. I will even say that nearly eighty years of gun control have not yet turned this country into a police state; and another Firearms Act will not do so purely on its own. Bad laws are often tolerable while the structure of laws as a whole remains stable. But what we have here is a state of mind that throws up one bad law after another - a state of mind that will accept no restraints on its behaviour. It is no good to say that a particular freedom or rule of Common Law is worth preserving. It is no good saying that it has been established for hundreds of years. If it gets in the way of whatever "tough new law" is currently in fashion, it will be swept aside without regrets or second thoughts.

Here is the true engine of collapse. Here is why the latest instalment of gun control will not terminate in itself, but lead on to worse. And here is what I find so depressing about it all. For I have no answers to give. I do not know why the British public has become so childish, nor what to do about it. I can only say that, unless some other cause can be made to intervene, things will end very badly.

Sean Gabb