The Unnatural Death of a Natural Right

By Timothy Wheeler, M.D.,

It wasn’t supposed to be this way. When Great Britain banned the sale and ownership of handguns in 1997, few expected it to be a panacea against such horrors as the Dunblane massacre, a madman’s handgun rampage that killed 16 children and gave political impetus to the anti-gun movement. But nobody expected the surge of violent crime that followed.

Believe it or not, Britain’s rates of assault, robbery, and burglary now exceed those in the United States. Murder and rape are creeping closer to U.S. rates. The American news media have virtually ignored this amazing change, even as American politicians push more stringent, British-style gun-control schemes.

In scenes evocative of “A Clockwork Orange,” cities across Great Britain are being increasingly terrorized by bands of young thugs who beat, rob, shoot, and rape their way to the top of the criminal food chain. But “Clockwork’s” vicious protagonist Alex and his bullyboys were armed only with clubs and switchblades. Today’s predators carry guns, in carefree contempt for the new law.

Violent crime in Britain had begun to rise even before Dunblane. Still, the Guardian in London reported this month “between 1997 and 1999 there were 429 murders in the capital, the highest two-year figure for more than 10 years.”  Two-thirds of the crimes involved firearms.

BBC News reported “a dramatic rise in violent crime” from 1998 to 1999 as revealed by the British Home Office’s July crime report. Violence against persons rose by 16%, and sexual offenses rose by 4.5%. The robbery rate skyrocketed by 26%, adding to a total violent crime rate increase of 16% in a single year.

It would be simplistic to attribute Britain’s violent crime wave entirely to the 1997 handgun ban. But it is clear that the ban did nothing to stop crime or even slow it down. Illegal guns continue to flow into the country, supplying youthful predators ever more willing to use them. The Guardian noted that shopkeepers increasingly find themselves facing handguns or automatic weapons.

How can lovely England, the wellspring of America’s legal tradition and culture, have come to this helpless state? America’s traditional right of gun ownership is indeed rooted in England. That “true, ancient, and indubitable right,” historian Joyce Lee Malcolm writes, was born in 1689 in the English Bill of Rights. The American founders adopted it as the Second Amendment to the Bill of Rights a century later.

While American political tradition retained the right to gun ownership, England eventually discarded it. Legal scholars Joseph Olson and David Kopel describe in a Hamline Law Review article “All The Way Down The Slippery Slope“ how gun ownership in England was hounded to extinction, one “sensible” law at a time. The stages of its death mirror the stages advocated by today’s American anti-gun activists.

Starting with the Pistol Act of 1903, no British subject could buy a pistol without a license. Similarly, Americans ceded power to their federal government with the Gun Control Act of 1968, which established strict controls on the sale or transfer of guns to citizens. Licensing of gun owners is currently espoused by Democratic presidential candidate Al Gore, among others.

Parliament passed the Firearms Act of 1920, which added the requirement of a government-sanctioned “good reason” for owning a gun. Olson and Kopel observe that gun ownership was no longer viewed as a right, but as a privilege. One can hear the echoes of this blow to English liberty as American gun-grabbers now plead that no deer hunter really needs a semi-automatic rifle.

It is no coincidence that the British also gave up their right of self-defense. Parliament repealed the common law rules on justifiable use of deadly force in 1967. Since then, a British subject who uses deadly force to defend against a violent home invasion is considered the criminal, not the victim. A chilling example is the Norfolk farmer Tony Martin, now serving a life sentence for shooting and killing a career criminal who broke into his home.

Britain now finds itself at the bottom of the slope, bereft of the primal and decent notion that a human life is worth defending. British subjects are now forced to submit to enslavement by common thugs. So much for Britain’s legacy of liberty.

Will America suffer the same fate? Americans should put the brakes on our own slide down the slippery slope of gun confiscation. Otherwise we will find ourselves defenseless against the criminals who have always been a part of society. And when that happens, in the words of the villain Alex, we can brace ourselves for a bit of the old ultra-violence.

 Timothy Wheeler, M.D., is the Director of Doctors for Responsible Gun Ownership.