Second Open Letter
to the Gunowners of the United Kingdom
by Sean Gabb
Published in London
on Tuesday the 3rd September 1996
Note: This is one of my Open Letters to the Gunowners of the United Kingdom. The titles make them sound very pretentious. Perhaps they are. However, you need to bear in mind that they were written in the early days of the Internet, when audiences were small, and any piece of connected prose was likely to be read and discussed. And these letters did have a radicalising effect on the British debate on guns – indeed, they caused a sensation in all the newsgroups and distribution lists where they were published. Of course, they were completely ignored by the newspapers – though ignoring uncontrolled debates is partly what newspapers are for nowadays.
I have just finished reading the latest replies to my first Open Letter, sent out the Monday before last. Most are rather flattering. Some are abusive. These first I have acknowledged privately. The second I have ignored. There is, however, a third class of reply – from people who broadly share my belief in the free ownership of guns, but who still misunderstand what I am trying to do. I am writing this second Open Letter with those people in mind.
I have been told that, if I want to be taken seriously, I must moderate my position. I must stop talking about other libertarian issues, like drugs and porn and kinky sex, and I must accept the principle of licensing.
The reasoning behind this, I suppose, is that a deal has already been made behind the scenes between the Home Office and the "gun lobby". The gungrabbers have been claiming this for weeks; and for once, it looks as if they are telling the truth. The talk since Dunblane of a ban on handguns will not be enacted into law. There are still too many important people who like shooting, still too many ordinary shooters who will carry on lobbying after mainstream public opinion has lost interest in the issue, still too many administrative problems in imposing a gun ban as opposed to the unpopularity of not imposing one. There will be more restrictions, more regulations on the home storage of guns and ammunition. But most people who really want to have a gun at home will be able to carry on having one. This being so, I may seem to have put myself far outside the present debate, and kept myself from having any influence on its outcome.
Such reasoning, however, is false. It takes no account of the dynamics of gun control, and it is absolutely blind to the power of ideas. Let me explain.
THE DYNAMICS OF GUN CONTROL
The Dunblane shootings happened almost half a year ago. The moral panic they occasioned has already been punctuated by the mad cow scare; and it may have been entirely replaced by the campaign against child pornography on the Internet. But, sooner or later, there will be another massacre – in this country or somewhere else. And as soon as that happens, whatever deal has been made after Dunblane will expire. There will be fresh calls for a ban on guns, and the Government will show willing, and a fresh compromise will have to be negotiated.
Now, this will be further in the direction of a gun ban – because it is the gungrabbers who are currently the most active campaigners, and they who are allowed to choose the times and places of argument most favourable to their cause; and because it is they who can use the fact of numbers in support of their claims. Be aware that every instalment of gun control reduces the number of people who hold firearms certificates, and therefore reduces the number of people who have a direct interest in opposing the next instalment. I have seen this happening with tobacco since the 1970s. I can see it happening with guns when I compare the reactions to Hungerford and Dunblane. It will continue to happen after some other maniac opens fire on a crowd.
It is easy to call me utopian when I call for the abolition of gun control. But I can apply that word, with far greater justification, to anyone who thinks that whatever revised licensing scheme emerges from Dunblane will last more than a few years.
THE POWER OF IDEAS
I received a message last week from someone who told me I knew nothing of public relations, but was just a political ideologue. Well, I am both. As well as from lecturing and writing, I make significant amounts of money from public relations, and some of my best friends are even more closely involved in that area. Our considered opinion is that much of what passes for public relations in this country is a waste of time and money. I have seen companies pour millions into PR campaigns based on the assumption that people are stupid and far more likely to be swayed by images and verbal tricks than by principled argument.
Certainly, public debate has little in common with a Platonic dialogue. It is far cruder and dirtier. Even so, ideas are important. They rule the world more absolutely than any set of material interests. Anyone who saw the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe must know the feebleness of armed force against an idea that has become the general but as yet unestablished consensus. Men like Stalin, who ruled the Soviet media with a rod or iron, and who had people shot for the most trifling thoughtcrime, were monsters, to be sure. But they were not stupid. They respected ideas enough to be afraid of them. Unlike Gorbachev and the other reformers, they knew how flimsy their power structure would be in contest with a people free to read and say what they pleased.
It is ideas that give the gungrabbers all their power. You, the gunowners of this country, can pose as often and as long as you like with your children or at your charity dinners. You can hand out various kinds of bribe to the politicians. You can dig up tons of dirt on people like "Dr Bernstein". But that is nothing against the central idea of the gungrabbers – that your right to have guns is what led to the Hungerford and Dunblane massacres. It may be a false idea, but it has been accepted by the British public. And it has been endorsed by you. I have seen your representatives on television, arguing – with plain success – that the legal availability of handguns and levels of armed crime are not related. I have then seen them ruin the force of this argument by accepting the need for gun control, only haggling over the details. But if control is needed, and if it can be made to work, the fact that it did not prevent Thomas Hamilton from shooting those poor children is surely an argument at least for tightening it in future. Certainly, it is no foundation for arguing that the present system of control should be made more liberal.
Still worse, your representatives come across as liars. As they switch back and forth from muttering what they really believe and asserting what they know to be absurdities, they look shifty in spite of their suits. They succeed only in looking like the quiescent maniacs the gungrabbers are calling you.
THE FOLLY OF PERMANENT MODERATION
I am told that I need to be more moderate before I can be acceptable. I disagree. It is rather like hearing an estate agent say "If you ask £80,000 for this house, you may not find a buyer. Better far to ask £40,000 and try to gazump any buyer upwards sometime before exchange of contracts." Not only is this dishonest, it is also fanciful. In politics, as in general, the best way to get what you want is to ask for it – or to ask for rather more and then be willing to compromise.
Look at the British socialists who spent half a century of arguing and publishing before 1945. Did they spend that time talking about the need for a National Coal Board and a National Health Service that would leave the consultants free to keep on their private patients? If they had, it is unlikely that the Labour Party would have got anyone into Parliament, let alone won the battle of ideas in the 1930s and 40s. Instead, they spoke about what they really wanted – their "New Jerusalem" of universal brotherhood and plenty. This is what attracted people of intellectual and organising ability into their movement, and helped beat down an opposition that was right but had almost no one able or willing to say so. The actual institutions set up by the Attlee Government were compromises, and were never intended to last much beyond the next big ratchet to the left in British politics. That these institutions lasted so long is testimony not to their durability – they were and are crap – but to the weight of the intellectual pressure behind them even after the 1940s high point of British socialism.
I know that my vision of a world without gun control is unacceptable at the moment. But that is no reason for my keeping quiet. After all, it is not unacceptable because it is wrong – because it is based on a false view of human nature and how trustworthy ordinary people are. It is unacceptable because it is strange – because it has not been really stated in this country since before the Great War. I know that my vision will not be realised in a few years, or perhaps even a few generations. But if not stated, it will never be realised.
Of course, there will be a licensing system for guns into the foreseeable future. There must be compromise in the short term, accepting whatever can be had. I have only contempt for those who sabotage a fine compromise for the sake of something that cannot yet be achieved, but may be achievable after a few years of the compromise – see, for example, the opposition of some gay groups to lowering the age of consent to 18 rather than 16. But compromise must not be something that is reached as it currently is. Just like the gungrabbers, we must get into the habit of saying what we really want, and then settling until the next convenient moment for what we can get.
Regarding the other libertarian issues that I like to mix into the debate on guns, these also are defensible in terms of public relations. Some of you may wear blazers and tweed caps, and think that breeding and moderate wealth make you part of the Establishment. You are mistaken. The modern British Establishment is composed largely of politically correct Guardian readers. You gunowners are among their plainest enemies. Your possession of weapons gives you at least the potential for breaking out of the cages they are building for humanity. In the short term, you remain numerous enough to be worth dealing with. But the basis of that relationship is diminishing all the time.
Nor can you rely on any automatic support from public opinion. Your talk about the joys of clay pigeon shooting is comparable in its effect to a paedophile talking about the spiritual aspect of the love between men and boys. You are increasingly a feared and hated minority.
If you want allies in your battle to save your guns, you must appeal to general arguments of freedom and independence. You must make a case that attaches your right to go out shooting to someone else's right to watch smutty videos or smoke funny cigarettes. The tobacco companies are still big enough to continue their stupid refusal to argue properly about freedom of choice. You are not. If you cut yourselves off from allies whose chances of unaided success are nearly always greater than your own, you will save yourselves the trouble of mixing with people whose opinions and lifestyles you – perhaps rightly – abhor. At the same time, you will be lost.
In calling for a principled stand in favour of guns, I am not promising instant success. I leave that to the air-heads in pretty suits who call themselves PR consultants. You are facing a struggle that will involve years at the very least without any obvious benefit. They will be years of growing public and official disgust. They will be measured by the increasing weight of new controls on the right to keep and bear arms.
But what is new about that? Since the 1968 Act, there have been 28 years of moderation. These have got you nowhere. By abasing yourselves before the gungrabbers every time they find it useful to restart their clamours, you have been reduced from a potentially large and effective movement to an inconsiderable rump. And you have nothing to look forward to but eventual confiscation of your guns. Take my advice, and you may not win – but there is always a chance that, one day in a freer world, you will teach your grandchildren how to shoot straight and not be afraid of the dark.
© 1996 – 2017, seangabb.
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