Watching from the UK, America’s gun control debate seems bizarre, archaic, outlandish and fascinating. Like most progressives, I come down firmly on the side of greater gun control; but I’m not American, and don’t claim a right to participate in the decision making. But I do claim my right to help influence the decision as best I can. America’s guns aren’t just America’s problem.
They leak out, fuelling the Mexican and Central American drug war. And in buying so many guns, Americans have greatly increased the size of the global small arms industry, bringing down gun prices and creating a wealthy industry with immense lobbying power that can be used to modify the will of the people. A gun manufactured in Russia is as likely to be sold to an American consumer as to the Russian police. Without legal weapons in America, guns would be less numerous and more expensive globally. Wars in poor countries would be more difficult to fund, if only marginally.
And the “debate” over whether guns lead to an increase in violence is laughable. International data are now available at the click of a Google button. Any American can now quickly compare the murder rate in their country with that in any other, and discover that America is far more violent than any similarly developed country. America has 4% of the world’s population, yet the vast majority of mass shootings happen in the United States – more than 200 since 2006.
The pro-gun “liberty” argument is deeply flawed. The prevalence of guns tends to discourage, rather than encourage, free speech – as Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Gabrielle Giffords and many others have inadvertently demonstrated. With so many guns, it takes a brave person to stand up in a public place and espouse a controversial idea. Minority viewpoints are violently suppressed in the United States, usually not by the state, but by lone men with access to fire-power. One of the greatest limitations to the First Amendment is the Second.
And yet, watching the arguments from the UK, I also experience a genuine and strong respect for the importance that many Americans attach to liberty. Britain pays lip service to liberty, and yet this country appears to almost completely lack the libertarian attitudes that exist on both the left and right of American politics. Britons are far more accepting of state intervention in our lives than Americans, in many forms. The merest hint of a threat will trigger a moral panic in the media, and Britons are repeatedly happy to accept the need for a little more police power without considering the cost.
The gun libertarians may have picked a dumb fight, but at least they stand and fight for (what they believe to be) liberty. Meanwhile, over the past decade, the state has rolled over British liberties, cheered on by the media and both of the main political parties.
Last weekend, thousands of Americans demonstrated against spying by the NSA. Meanwhile in Britain, we discover that GCHQ is spying on us and sharing the information with the NSA. Here in the UK, we don’t demonstrate for our right to privacy or free speech. Nor do our leaders have the backbone to criticise the secret police; instead they issue threats against newspapers that dare reveal the erosion of our freedom.
It’s easy to draw up a long list of liberties lost in recent years, but what is most shocking is that these were taken without opposition.
- Laws drawn up against a “terrorist threat” have routinely been used to attack other targets. When police brutality started to be routinely exposed by photographers, the police responded by using terrorist powers to harass photographers.
- Carrying a knife is an offence punishable with prison time. The change in law came about following a moral panic over a “knife crime epidemic” which never happened. I’m not a huge fan of people carrying knives, but I’m even less of a fan of a police state with endless justification to stop and search people in the street, which is where we now live. We don’t need police stopping and searching our teenagers at their whim, especially since they choose to direct their actions against young black and Asian men – such police behaviour was a prime cause of the 2011 UK riots.
- Possession of “extreme pornography” is punishable with prison time and addition to the sex offenders register. Possession can even constitute receipt of an “extreme” image by email. What constitutes “extreme” is the decision of puritanical politicians and regulators who seem never to have had sex lives of their own. This law is now to be extended to include “rape porn”. In practise, although sold as a law to “protect” people, this criminalises the recording of legal, consenting sex acts between adults.
- We allow video and TV to be more tightly censored than most other democracies; now we are also ready to watch our free Internet access slip away, under the guise of “protecting children”.
Through moral panic after moral panic, draconian law after draconian law, British rights are eroded. But it seems the British people deserve this treatment. We fail to protest. We re-elect the Labour/Tory duopoly that competes to be “toughest” against the next non-existent threat to our safety. To their credit, the Liberal Democrats exhibit at least paper support for civil liberties; for this reason, it’s better that we elect Lab/Lib or Tory/Lib coalitions than either simple Labour or Tory governments.
We live in one of the safest societies on Earth. Crime in all forms has been falling for decades. And yet the average Briton seems more afraid and more prepared to surrender liberty than ever. We have become a nation of cowards (if we were ever anything else – our belief in our “glorious and courageous history” seems to largely be based on the courage of one man: Winston Churchill).
Liberty is often ugly. It means allowing people to do things that many people dislike or even fear. We’ve forgotten this in Britain, and unless we re-learn it, we will deservedly continue our slide towards living in a sham democracy where everything is monitored, and many harmless acts can result in police intervention in our lives. America, with its endless wars and regular suspension of democratic values, may not deserve to call itself the Land of the Free, but it has more right to do so than Britain does.