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Pro-social gun control

December 20, 2012 by
Filed under: Uncategorized 

There are many reasons to hesitate before writing a post on American gun control: other people’s tragedy should not be lightly used as the basis for spouting opinions, I am not American and I am not an expert on gun control. I make the following suggestion humbly, simply to see if anyone else thinks it has merit.

Quite apart from the core questions of whether it is guns that are to blame for tragedies like Newtown, and whether gun control would actually work (to which my answers to both are ‘to some extent, yes, and that’s enough’), the gun control debate is overlaid with a deeper political/cultural divide. Gun enthusiasts are much more likely than the general populace to be libertarians of one kind of another, sceptical of the state’s capacity to defend them and harbouring an instinctive suspicion of government and its motives.

As far as I can see, the debate in America seems to centre on the possibility of outlawing assault weapons and /or tightening the process of vetting. But regulation in either area imposed on a reluctant populace by a flat-footed state could easily fail or generate perverse outcomes.

New forms of lethal weapons which somehow circumvent the details of an assault ban will emerge leading the Government – just like on drugs policy in the UK – to keep changing the rules to catch up. And more stringent state regulation – if it is not easily to be circumvented – is not only expensive and cumbersome but is likely to throw up anomalous cases which discredit the process. Given the Americans’ support for the robust self defence, one case of someone being shot in their home while waiting for their gun application to be processed could be enough to throw the tide of public opinion back towards the gun lobby.

In view of this my idea is to have a system of regulation based primarily not on the state but on other citizens.

In essence, the new system would require anyone owning or purchasing a gun to provide references from three other citizens, at least one of whom should not be a gun owner themselves. The referees would in turn be required to sign on the basis that they were satisfied that certain limited but essential conditions had been met by the person they were endorsing: namely, that the person is of sound mind, they have the gun for genuine reasons of security or sport and that the person has measures in place to ensure that no unauthorised person is able to access the gun.

Critical to the system is that the referees, by signing, accept liability in the form of being subject to charges of negligence or of assisting in an offence if the gun holder they endorse uses the gun to break the law, and if it is subsequently shown that the referees had good reason for suspecting or knowing that there was a risk of the gun holder using the gun illegally.

The point of this system is that it puts the onus on the gun holder not to convince the state but to convince their fellow citizens. If they are unable to do this the fault lies with them and their friends and associates not with the state.

It might be that initially such a system would be abused, with people (particularly, gun shop owners) setting themselves up as professional paid referees. One way to avoid this would be to set a maximum of, say, five on the number of people any one person could endorse, but anyway if the referees do the job of checking, that’s fine and if they don’t sooner or later one of them will find themselves facing public opprobrium and a prison sentence or heavy fine for culpability in a gun owner’s misdemeanour.

Of course, such a system would make it harder for friendless loners to get guns but this is surely a plus point!




  • Adrian Perry

    Good idea but will never happen. The important point hidden away in your post is that new policies – this is particularly true of drug policy – should not be expected to cure the problem, but just to move things in the right direction.

  • Robert Burns


    there is no doubting that every death caused by guns in the course of crime or psychotic rampages is a tragedy that probably could have been avoided.

    To implement your idea would involve revising a fundamental article of the US constitution – the right to bear arms.

    For many (even anti gun lobbyists) this would be a dangerous precedent.

    It is dangerous to draw parallels with the US in the light of our many cultural and historical links, but not far under the surface the US is an alien environment.

    Firstly, in the UK we blithely refer to our “rights” – but these “rights” are really no rights at all.

    What we really have are a set of revocable liberties and where the law and state come in is to prohibit specific actions that interfere with the exercise of those liberties.

    Here is one of the prime reasons why many UK politicians dislike the European Court of Human Rights – because is creates something for the private individual that exists outside the gift of the political state.

    This is in stark contrast to the US where the many “rights” set down in the Constitution are there precisely to balance out the power of the state and – in the case of the gun issue – to allow the individual to possess the means to deliver deadly force in the protection of their lives, freedom and property, where the state frequently could not.

    Here in the UK for an individual to own and possess a firearm is a dispensation by the state subject to summary and arbitrary revocation based on the presumption that the state always knows and will act for the best.

    The Tony Martin case shows just how hideously this can go wrong as does the Michael Ryan/Hungerford incident.

    In the US the presumptions we make here would be treated by most citizens as a sick joke.

    The US gun lobby can point to the fact that legal gun ownership isn’t the problem and incidents like the recent tragedy are not representative of the ‘real’ gun problem – guns in undocumented and illegal possession.

    Changing the US constitution wouldn’t take illegal guns out of circulation or stop the deaths they cause.

    Nor would it stop the mentally disturbed from killing by some other means.

    The last time the US government tried to legislate on cultural norm (alcohol) it was a disaster that cost billions in lost revenue, enforcement costs and spawned criminal networks that have been a running sore on US society ever since.

    On the face of it the ‘references’ idea sound OK, but it would run right against a constitutional right that makes every individual the guardian of their independence.

  • Adrian Perry

    If an ‘untypical’ incident kills 20 children, then policy needs to cover that too. In fact many of the mass killings use legal guns. This is my point – see above comment – we should welcome measures that reduce the deaths, suicides etc knowing they won’t cut fatalities to zero. In passing, the US constitution doesn’t say everyone can have any gun they want. Guns are allowed in the context of a well-regulated militia: Thais doesn’t include individual survivalists in my book. I like Matthew Parris’s solution – allow only the use of 18th century muzzle loading muskets, the arms in use at the time if the constitutional amendment.
    Last point. The debate on this issue is warped by the extraordinary privileges afforded to the NRA – anonymity for political donations, forbidding govt funded research into effects of gun control etc. Any claims about what Americans really think must bear in mind the information filters that they face.

  • Robert Burns


    I am not a supporter of mass gun ownership – so, let’s have that out of the way.

    As for what Americans think about gun control, that depends on which Americans you talk to.

    My father is a US citizen and I have relatives in Nebraska, Washington State and Alaska, there they look upon gun ownership the way we look on owning a dog.

    Every year there are incidents in this country where dogs kill children and maim adults, yet no serious effort is made to properly license and restrict dog ownership.

    How many people in this country – outside the context of the police, military or security industry – really need a Rottweiller, Alsation or Doberman?

    By the same token how many private individuals in the US really need an AK47 or M16?

    It is a matter of taboo social norms tied to identity and insecurity.

    Any argument that suggests guns are a ‘special’ issue is bogus, soundbite pontification.

    The products of the motor, fast food and tobacco industries are absolutely legal but directly contribute to an annual death toll way in excess of anything done with guns.

    Indeed, the entire consumer lifestyle we enjoy continually condemns billions of people around the world to denial of political rights we take for granted, poverty, ill health and untimely death.

    But I don’t hear any ‘nice’ Middle Class people agreeing en masse to forgo any part of their standard of living to ‘move things in the right direction’.

  • Hugh Curran

    There is merit in your proposal Matthew and indeed, in each of the replies. What astounds me though is that nobody even touches on some computer games which in my opinion, could be a bigger contributor to the problem than guns. These games appear to glorify mass mass killing etc. and could, to an already pre-disposed warped mind, provide the justification required by that mind.

  • Michael McCarthy

    This is a very interesting debate for me. I’m a war veteran and the son of a (deceased) libertarian gun-owner.

    My father passed away just 2 months shy of my deployment to Afghanistan in 2008. When he died, all he left me was an arsenal of firearms locked in a beautiful emerald and gold Winchester gun safe.

    I no longer have a stomach for weapons after carrying one for 8 months in Afghanistan, witnessing the deaths of numerous innocent people (I was a medic, so mistakes were a personal, hands-on affair. Mistakes were too numerous.)

    The firearms my father left me? They are all in the care of a family friend from the gun-friendly state my father lived in when he died (not near where I was raised or live now.) He left me the following weapons, none of which I claim as my own, all of which were semi-automatic and 100% legal, purchased just prior to the original assault weapons ban or after it lapsed: 2 MAK-90’s (7.62, Romanian-made AK-47’s), 2 Mini-14s (rifles that fire the same .223 NATO standard round as the M-16A4 I carried in Afghanistan), a Taurus 9mm pistol, 2 pump-action high capacity Mossberg 12-gauge shotguns, an M-119A high-capacity 9mm pistol, a Tec-9 machine pistol, and a .22 caliber rifle. There was plenty of ammunition, and tons of legal accessories and legal non-internal modifications. Other marvels included a legal single-action grenade launcher (non-explosive, supposedly for smoke/signals, etc.)

    There’s more to the story. My father would have also left me with a 9mm Glock pistol, but just before he died, it was stolen by a formerly trustworthy family friend who had taken up a serious drug habit months prior. This person had the combination to the gun safe, and stole what she perceived to be a valuable weapon (she was right, it was the most valuable of the bunch, and easily concealed.) I do not know what she received for the gun, but I imagine it was well below market value for the weapon, likely sold to a blackmarket purchaser, all to feed a worsening drug habit. I was heartbroken, not because I cared at all about the damn gun, but because only days before my father died he had to carry the burden of knowing that someone, a close unknown person, had stolen a deadly weapon from him as he lay wasting away from cancer. My father Kevin died shortly after, and I immediately went overseas and watched and participated in the deaths of other people.

    I hate guns. Hate them. I accept the terms of the Second Amendment. But here is the damn truth about our sacred rights:


    In America, the country that I love and fought for (and would again, by God,) currently there is a deficit in ownership of responsibility. People have taken a fundamental American right for granted. This right has been abused, repeatedly so, and these abusers are refusing to take any real responsibility. Even my father, for all his personal politics of gun possession and safety, failed to prevent the theft and potential misuse of one of his firearms. For all I know, it could have been used to take a human life by now. I am ashamed that this could be the case. My father did what he could, but he and many American gun owners have come up short. We were lucky that at the time, no one in our intimate circle was killed or injured (as is statistically the most likely risk of gun ownership.)

    I’m sorry, but the time has come for change. I wholeheartedly agree that our right to self-defense, by armament, is enshrined in the holiest American law. I’m a patriot. I carry a solid and enduring suspicion of the state. Fear of an overstepping gov’t is a healthy and prudent fear and to arm oneself is to take up the last assurance of that freedom; BUT, the right to bear arms needs to be defended with reason and prudence… not ignorance and shameful misconduct.

    I feel ashamed to be an American, when 20 dead children receive the response they have gotten from organizations the likes of the NRA, the alleged stewards of the 2nd Amendment. Good riddance to guns! My ears and my voting fingers are paying close attention. If I ever need to defend myself against the gov’t, there is more than one way to skin a cat. I’d rather do the deed with my bare hands then see another child unnecessarily killed to defend against a phantom menace. I saw enough of that bullshit in Afghanistan to last 3 lifetimes. Enough.

  • Robert Burns

    To Michael McCarthy,

    sorry to read about your father.

    As someone on the spot and clearly seen a lot of firearms related injury and death your opinions deserve respect.

    A gun free America would be great, but for that to happen horror stories about people phoning the police only get put on ‘voice-mail’ or ‘hold’ would have to stop happening and this would cost billions of Dollars.

    The ‘phantom threat’ argument against guns is open to reversal.

    Perhaps a good first step would be to legally restrict the number of firearms an individual can own – your fathers’ collection sounds to be on the low end of excessive.

    A legal restriction of one hand gun and one ‘long’ weapon’ per person (whether in possession by way of sale, rental/leasing or gift transfer) might have a fighting chance of making it into law as a first step to rolling back gun ownership.

    At the same time a legal requirement for all gun owners to carry third party insurance – subject to an annual ‘(psychological) fitness to own a gun’ test is a feasible political goal – the Second Amendment implies the possession of socially responsible reason.

    The sale and supply (this would include renting/leasing/giving as a ‘gift’) of guns needs to be restricted to licensed gun retailers – sales through (for example eBay) and other outlets should be made illegal.

    To make such a ban on unlicensed sales/transfers bite the penalties should start with making the seller responsible for any death or injury caused by a gun obtained through an unlicensed transfer of ownership/possession.

    I would be interested to read your views on this.

  • Jonny Gifford

    Thank you Michael McCarthy for your frank & powerful comment. Rights do indeed bring responsibilities. Indeed, to me, this is what the original blog is all about (and the other comments here seem to have missed).

    Matthew, When we say rights bring responsibilities, we usually mean those we have for our own actions! So I’m intrigued by your idea of personal responsibility for other people’s actions. Ironically, given the gun control theme, it’s rather like the mafia-style vouching for a person’s character. Al Pacino vouches for the guy who turns out to be a rat and gets punished for his bad judgment. In this ruthless way it might ‘work’ in a closed, tightly knit mafia society. But aren’t our Western societies generally too far removed from collectivism for the accountability you propose to be feasible? And is it really something we’d want anyway? For example, if social control relied on personal recommendation wouldn’t we develop a strict insider / outsider culture, making the marginal even more marginalised? Thought provoking blog – raises more questions than it gives answers. I look forward to you developing your theme! When’s the book coming out?