I have lived in the United Kingdom for some decades — the whole of
my adult life. As an American from Santa Fe, I have often been involved
in what might be called heated discussions about the “gun problem” in
the United States.

My British friends are bemused and sometimes quite upset at my
insistence on defending the private possession of guns. I grew up in a
house where weapons were taboo, but spent much of my childhood next
door, where my grandfather — once mayor of Santa Fe — kept a small
arsenal in his bedroom: a Colt .45, several shotguns of various gauges,
a Springfield rifle and a couple of .22 pistols. By the time I was nine,
I had fired the Colt, and knew how to use the other weapons with some
accuracy. A major part of my family education involved respect for
weapons and what they could do.

Andrew Nagorski, writing in Newsweek with a tad of sanctimony
recently, wrote a little polemic against weapons in private hands,
saying that “the perspective from abroad” (he had just returned to the
U.S.) might have “twisted his perspective.” The context made this seem

The European and especially the British “perspective” is simply that
all guns are bad in private hands. In Britain handguns and all weapons
except shotguns are banned absolutely. Special permits are needed for
shotguns, and these are not easy to obtain. Unlike America, a private
citizen who defends himself and his property with seemingly justified
deadly force can be tried for murder and sent down for life, as happened
recently — even though the victim was a career criminal invading the
“killer’s” property at night — a property which had been burgled before
in an area where even the police admit prevention of such crimes is all
but nil.

But there are in fact plenty of guns about. In Britain criminals now
use armed force as a matter of routine. In Manchester where I live,
there have been drive-by shootings in the “black” ghetto area called
Moss Side, where teenagers have been known to deploy Uzi submachine
guns. This in a country that has some of the strictest gun-control laws
in the world, and in which the citizen does not have the constitutional
right to bear arms.

In Britain as in America, there have been people who went off the
mental rails and committed massacres (violating existing gun laws in the
process). One of these psychotic episodes led to the total ban on
handguns. Such killings have moved anti-gun activists in the United
States to demand more “action” on guns. But of course — I say again —
those who committed these killings violated laws that were already in
place. There are two lessons in this which activists have failed to
learn, totally: first, laws do not prevent the sort of killings which
have led to cries for the heavier control of guns or their ban. Such
laws are, furthermore, an insult to the private citizen because they
effectively brand him as a madman who may at any moment run amok and
slaughter his neighbors. Anyone, and I stress, anyone who is seriously
motivated to commit mass murder with a firearm will not find it
difficult to obtain that weapon, whatever laws are in place; in Britain
and on the continent this has been shown time and again to be the case.

The real purpose of stricter laws is to create an illusion — and it
is no more than that — of greater safety for the “innocent” — i.e.,
those whom the activists wish to bar (and in Britain, have barred) from
possessing weapons at all. Outside that illusion, in the real world, the
innocent have been deprived of any effective defense against armed
force. The effect of these supposedly life-saving laws is, then, to
control and expose the innocent — not the criminals who should be
controlled. That is the American perspective that arouses Mr. Nagorski’s
sanctimony. It is based on a common-sense perception which activists and
certain “liberal” politicians are prepared to ignore — at our peril,
not theirs. That is why these proposed laws are a bad idea.

The second lesson is a simple but sound nostrum from the legal world:
Hard cases make bad law — something which the more self-righteous
activists and play-to-the gallery politicians in Britain have wiped out
of their minds, and which too many in the United States are happy to
forget. These people are using hard cases — e.g. the massacres in
Dunblane in Britain and Columbine School in America — to promote laws
which are bad for the simple reason already stated, and make the citizen
fair game for any armed criminal who wants to attack him.

Many Americans like to believe that the British police are not armed.
This is not true. While the ordinary street-beat constable does not pack
heat — except in Ulster, where Republican terrorism makes it necessary
— Special Response Units are not only heavily armed but willing to fire
on anyone who seems to be using deadly force. Like all such forces, they
make the occasional mistake. But no one here is stupid enough to demand
that their guns be taken away because of that.

But there is a softer target for the activists: The ordinary citizen.
The most draconian gun-control laws have never protected him or her from
either mad or determined killers and criminals. And what is the
activists’ answer to that? More of the same draconian laws. As the
British satirical magazine Private Eye might say, “Shome mishtake,
shurely.” In logic and in deadly effect, these people have been wrong
in Britain and they are wrong in the United States — where, thank God,
the ordinary citizen is, so far, protected from their asininity by the

Herb Greer is a freelance writer and playwright living in the United

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