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Thoughts on why Britons and Americans have different views about guns

An interesting, and to my mind convincing, posting by Eric Raymond:

Decentralized threats are the mother of liberty because the optimum adaptive response to them is localist and individualist – the American ideal of the armed citizen delegating power upward. Centralized threats are the father of tyranny because the optimum response to them is the field army and the central command – war is the health of the state.

There is an implication for today’s conditions. Terrorism and asymmetrical warfare are decentralized threats. The brave men and women of Flight 93, who prevented September 11 2001 from being an even darker day than it was, were heroes in the best American tradition of bottom-up decentralized response. History will regret that they were not armed, and should record as a crime against their humanity that they were forbidden from it.

He links to this essay by Dave Kopel.

A book comparing and contrasting UK and US experiences with guns, by Joyce Lee Malcolm, is also worth reading. Here is her website. 

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31 comments to Thoughts on why Britons and Americans have different views about guns

  • staghounds

    We ought to take “In God We Trust” off the currency, and put on it “United 93, motherf*cker!”

  • Umbriel

    I consider myself a pretty strong supporter of the Second Amendment, and critical of most “gun-free zones”, but I remain a bit apprehensive about the idea of allowing passengers to carry firearms freely on pressurized aircraft.

  • Bod

    All that does is create an opportunity for airlines to compete, with some carriers requiring passengers to lock their firearms up while during the flight.

    Given the execrable record of the LE and govt agency personnel, i dont fear private individuals that much more.

  • Just wondering how the Swiss militia tradition fits into this theory ? Charles the Bold and his Burgundians were certainly a centralized threat. The Swiss militia phalanx was not exactly a hive of individualism.

    Yet when the age of firearms came around the Swiss jumped on the idea of a well armed citizenry. Their system is very very different from the US one, but it is still based on armed citizens who like to shoot guns.

  • Nicholas (Unlicenced Joker) Gray

    Hey, the early US had pumas and wolves and bears and crocodiles to contend with, as well as pesky Amerindians who kept disputing title deeds! Totally different environments.

  • bobby b

    I just like how they go “bang!”

  • Laird

    An excellent analysis. I’m convinced.

  • JadedLibertarian

    I’m not convinced Britons do have different thoughts on guns. I’m British and really quite into firearms. Due to the law I don’t own any, but I could tell you exactly what I’d buy if the law were to ever change. I didn’t just pop into existence one day – I’m a product of my environment and genetics just like everyone else. And I’ve known at least a few other Brits who feel exactly the same way.

    Certainly my views aren’t expressed here as commonly as in America but that’s at least partly down to the informal thought police we seem to have. I think you’d find being pro-firearms is more common than you’d think.

    Even places like Texas have authoritarian hands wringers who dream of the day they can make the nasty boom sticks go bye bye, so that Britain has such people in spades doesn’t necessarily tell you anything.

    Certainly our politicians are very vocally anti-gun (and anti-fun and anti-liberty for that matter). But if the last couple of years has taught us anything, it’s that our political class is often completely out of step with the views of the people.

    Is it possible that Britain actually has a relatively large number of gun-lovers who just keep silent because (thanks to the actions of the highly vocal but relatively small anti-gun crowd) they mistakenly assume their views are not popular? Heck, the fear of the informal thought police might be so great that these people may even obfuscate their true views when asked with some anti-gun platitudes. Has anyone ever actually tried to check this?

  • NickM

    NRA bumper sticker I once saw in Atlanta, GA. “When guns are outlawed only outlaws will have guns”. Same with drugs BTW. The great myth of the legislators is, “We made it illegal – job done!”

    Less seriously, though apposite. I have Gordon Ramsey on the TV. He’s doing his “nightmares” show. It’s the U.S. edition. Gordon swears like a trooper in the UK but in America…

  • John K

    The American and British views on guns were once identical, and indeed the US Supreme Court goes back to look at British law such as our Bill of Rights when judging US gun rights cases.

    However, 97 years of ever stricter gun control in the UK have made this fact pretty well forgotten in Britain. Only about 1% of the British population owns a gun, and the vast majority of guns owned are shotguns and .22 rifles for field sports and pest control, plus a bit of target shooting. Outside of Northern Ireland, owning a gun for self-defence is just not allowed. That’s not written into the law, it’s an administrative fiat.

    I think most British people have quite robust views about self-defence, and in cases where a householder batters or even kills a burglar, are overwhelmingly on his side. However, I think most people in Britain also have a feeling that everyone in America owns a gun, and that the streets are full of corpses. That might be true in a few places, such as Chicago and Baltimore, where the guns are illegal and the police corrupt and ineffectual, but it’s not the rule.

    Anyway, our government and Home Office are now addicted to gun control. They are currently “looking into” banning 50 calibre rifles, which are owned by a handful of enthusiasts, and never used in crime. Why? Because gun control. Likewise with a class of rifle designed to comply with our semi-auto rifle ban, but which look unacceptable to the bureaucratic mind? Why? Answer as above.

    It will possibly change when the state crumbles, as it inevitably must. Until then, I wouldn’t hold out much hope.

  • staghounds

    I’m sure that no one intended to create a population that is both unfamiliar with and afraid of the tools, and ultimately the very idea, of self defence. A people for whom the lackeys* of the State are their only “protector”.

    It just happened by accident.

    *Actually minions, police officers and soldiers are generally cleverer and braver than the people at large. We have lucked out so far, but it’s the personnel that keeps things straight, not the system.

  • the other rob

    An excellent article. I think that JadedLibertarian may have a point, though. Gun control in the UK has been incrementally implemented, by design, so that at each stage the number of people with a dog in the fight is insufficient for effective opposition.

    It might be a mistake, however, to extrapolate from that lack of effective opposition to the assertion that the majority would not prefer to replace that cricket bat by the bed with a handgun, were doing so lawful and free of bureaucratic encumbrance.

    ESR is entirely correct about an armed citizenry being the optimal response to decentralized threats, however. I remember the Met proudly reporting that they dealt with the London Bridge attack in just seven minutes.

    Seven minutes. In the heart of the capital. Right by the seat of government. At maximum terror alert and with 5000 troops on the streets. Here in Texas, members of the general public would have shot them down like the diseased dogs that the are, in a fraction of that time.

  • I agree with JadedLibertarian (December 6, 2017 at 9:16 am) and JohnK (December 6, 2017 at 11:01 am) as regards the actual divergence in practice having occurred during the last century, not earlier. I described the situation 100 years ago in this comment. If anyone in the US knows such a transaction would have been easier over there than here in 1914, let alone today, by all means say. (Please note the 10-year-old George Orwell was unaccompanied by an adult when he made the purchase. Orwell also found he could usually buy gunpowder direct and could always buy the ingredients separately and mix it up himself.)

    The Dave Kopel essay mentions our 1689 bill of rights including firearms. Like the rest of it, this was seen at the time as reasserting a traditional right, not some newly-invented right. (See Burke’s relevant discussion in “An Appeal from the New to the Old Whigs”.)

    The Eric Raymond post states: “Between 1910 and 1984 British authorities could quash civilian arms with barely a protest heard”. I’d suggest that 1997, when the newly elected Labour government banned all forms of pistol ownership even under the most restrictive conditions (e.g. gun never leaves the range and its adjacent safe) is a more logical end date (end to-date date).

  • Michael Taylor

    I don’t buy it. The key point is that the US has found itself in a negative equilibrium about firearms, in which the arguments about arms control can have no purchase (ie, the NRA are essentially right, in the circumstances). But the UK is not in that negative equilibrium about firearms, rather we are pretty much in a positive equilibrium, and so there’s no rational argument for relaxing arms control. It’s not to do with freedom or the repressive state, it’s to do with the logic of equilibria.

  • Decentralized threats are the mother of liberty

    The vikings make a useful context in which to analyse this theory.

    – On the continent, they cause the feudal system, destroying the wide-ranging authority of centralised states that either could not defend against their sudden and swift raids or saw completing the latest campaign against a rival claimant as more important. (“So worthless were the Merovings, and so futile their pretexts of war against each other, that one can only wonder at the docility of subjects who let themselves be butchered in such a cause.” Sir Charles Oman, The Art of Warfare in the Middle Ages.) While the resulting local feudal lords were not the most obvious bulwarks of peasant liberty at first glance, the opportunity to vote with your feet, and for one lord to seek advantage by becoming a ‘low-tax haven’ (as the eurocrats would say) was considerable.

    – On our side of the channel, the vikings cause the unification of England into a centralised state, by destroying rival states, selecting one (Wessex) as alone able to withstand them, and then being a just cause of war and a good argument for the Saxons they’d conquered to accept the later conquest by Wessex. (In the case of Eric Bloodaxe, even some of the Jorvik vikings seem to have ended by thinking that Athelstan of Wessex might be preferable.)

    Where the continentals turned to enfeoffed knights for local defence, Alfred and his son and daughter relied on burghs – fortified towns garrisoned by the inhabitants. This may have made for a degree of liberty.

    Your reflections welcome.

  • Laird

    “there’s no rational argument for relaxing arms control.”

    “No rational argument”? Have you been paying attention?

    Nonsense or troll? Take your pick.

  • bobby b

    Niall (at 12:23pm), I remembered that thread and conversation. Within it, it had been my suggestion that the right to own firearms was a right that could be returned to the people of GB surprisingly easily because the hidden sentiment of the people might be supportive.

    But there seemed to be a consensus in that conversation that no MP could ever vote to legalize firearms due to the overwhelming anti-firearm sentiment amongst the people. In my filter of “representatives or leaders”, it was said that Parliament would act as representatives in upholding the overwhelming will of the people to keep firearms illegal, not as leaders in imposing their supposed greater knowledge and judgment on the mob.

    I still find myself coming down on the same side as JadedLibertarian on this question. I’d guess that, especially within the past decade, public support for legalization will have grown enough to make it a worthwhile topic of debate (at least, once the Overton window had been cleaned up enough to avoid the demonization of adherents that would surely ensue). And, if you could do a better job of regulating carry-licensing than do we in the USA, I still believe that GB would be a better place were firearms legalized and regulated.

  • bobby b

    Michael Taylor
    December 6, 2017 at 12:49 pm

    ” . . . it’s to do with the logic of equilibria.”

    Sorry, I don’t quite get what you’re saying.

    Does your equilibria have to do with the fact that firearms are common throughout the USA and are here to stay, whereas in the UK you can still ban them and have an expectation that even criminals cannot get hold of them?

    Or are you saying that the USA people’s mass opinion so overwhelmingly accepts firearms as a fact of life that efforts towards a ban are mooted, while in the UK you start from a default position that a ban is proper?

    Or . . . something else?

    If it’s the first option above, I’d have to agree with your basic premise. In the USA, a ban on guns would be useless until all existing arms have rusted away and all computer 3-D printers have been confiscated and all machine-shop equipment banned. It would be like banning blades of grass. Good luck with that.

    If it’s the second option above, well, the conversation here (I think) has to do with exactly where that public-sentiment equilibrium now lies.

  • bobby b

    Niall Kilmartin
    December 6, 2017 at 12:56 pm

    “Where the continentals turned to enfeoffed knights for local defence, Alfred and his son and daughter relied on burghs – fortified towns garrisoned by the inhabitants. This may have made for a degree of liberty.”

    Strange sort of liberty, where you need to imprison yourself behind walls to be free. :mrgreen:

  • Surellin

    “Americans aren’t more violent than other people. We’re just better shots”. – Barcelona (1994)

  • bobby b (December 6, 2017 at 1:52 pm), the burghers were only imprisoned within their walls on those occasions when a viking army was camped outside them – at which point they were a lot freer than if the vikings were enslaving or killing them. At such times, the walled burgh, like a feudal castle, held up the enemy while the main army gathered.

    My point about freedom was that whereas the feudal knights tended to monopolise the profession of arms, leaving the unarmoured peasants only with pitchforks, the Wessex burghal system tended to spread the practice of arms more widely. It was more like having a militia: the burghers were each required to own, and to practice with, some weapon(s) suitable for defending the walls. In peacetime, they worked the fields outside the town.

  • there seemed to be a consensus in that conversation that no MP could ever vote to legalize firearms due to the overwhelming anti-firearm sentiment amongst the people. (bobby b, December 6, 2017 at 1:23 pm)

    Not from me. My point was only that the intense PC resistance could only incrementally be overcome. As we lost this stage by stage, so we will only regain it stage by stage. (I described one possible strategy – a first responders club earlier in that thread.)

    If we are forced to arm the police and admit openly that a unique feature of Britishness (unarmed police on the beat) has had to be sacrificed to the god of multiculturalism, that may be a moment of pivotal change. But even if (probably I should say ‘when’) that openly happens, I expect incrementalism to be the only way forward.

  • JadedLibertarian

    I’ve long thought that the foot in the door of self defense for British people would be a CCW license for pepper sprays and tasers. I’m a realist – they’re not going to let me skip straight to a Glock 26.

    So allow those who have no criminal record take a weekend class in the safe use of tasers and pepper sprays. When all hell doesn’t break loose, maybe people will realise self defense is a good thing.

    This will be especially so if a permit holder stops a terrorist attack, and sadly, even more so if a permit holder almost stops a terrorist attack but didn’t quite have enough firepower.

  • bobby b

    Niall Kilmartin
    December 6, 2017 at 6:48 pm

    “It was more like having a militia: the burghers were each required to own, and to practice with, some weapon(s) suitable for defending the walls.”

    I didn’t know this (although I should have; a wall does no good unless you can keep people back from it.) I’m assuming that this would be bows and crossbows? OT, but could they possess and use those weapons outside of the walls in times of peace? If so, that would contradict much of what I thought I knew concerning GB’s weapons history. (Here we go again. For the life of me, I cannot quite parse out if I should be using “GB”, “UK”, or “England” in this context.)

    Niall Kilmartin
    December 6, 2017 at 7:14 pm

    “Not from me.”

    Agreed. But from many, if not most, others . . .

    Is the Unarmed Police theme really one of those themes that deeply define (or at least accompany forever) a culture? Is it seen to lie at the heart of some “British” quality that says “we’re civilized”? If so, it strikes me as very similar to the argument, held by many never-Trump people here, that “we should never stoop to their level”, i.e., that liberals may try to win power by hook or by crook, but we’re civilized and so shan’t go there. And then we never actually arrive at power unless we do go there: e.g., Trump.

    JadedLibertarian
    December 6, 2017 at 7:29 pm

    “I’ve long thought that the foot in the door of self defense for British people would be a CCW license for pepper sprays and tasers. I’m a realist – they’re not going to let me skip straight to a Glock 26.”

    That’s probably the most likely to succeed of any plan I’ve heard. Once there’s a realization that the array of people willing to fill out applications, pay fees, take classes, and practice accuracy and usage is self-selecting for a very safe group of people – maybe more safe than the selection process that gives us police officers – and then it will be easier to move on to the next step. The instances of injudicious usage of weapons tends to be very low amongst this group.

    And if your mention of the 26 fits in with your “exactly what I’d buy if the law were to ever change” comment, great choice. That’s my carry gun. Just shot yesterday, and in spite of critiques that claim the small frame and short barrel make it inaccurate, I was shooting 3″-4″ groups at 15 yards for around 250 rounds, which, to me, is a usable gun. That’s after at least 60k rounds, and I clean it at least every year on my birthday. And I frequently forget that I’m carrying it, which is impossible with a bigger hunk of steel.

  • John K

    Bobby:

    I think the “unarmed police” idea in Britain goes back to the average 19th Century Briton’s distrust of the state.

    When Sir Robert Peel wanted to set up the Metropolitan Police in the 1820s, he made sure it did not wear military style uniforms, since the British people did not like the idea of being policed by soldiers or militias. The average Briton was also armed, so having an unarmed police served to show that the police operated with the consent of the people, and were their servants, not their masters.

    This was pretty much the case for the first 100 years of British policing. The second 100 years has been marked by the progressive disarming of the British public, and an arming of the police. It has also been marked by a loss of public trust in the police, as well as increased crime.

    We are now pretty much in the position Peel sought to avoid: an unarmed and cowed populace, patrolled by an armed militia. It took a while, but the state made sure we eventually knew our place.

  • “I’m assuming that this would be bows and crossbows? (bobby b, December 6, 2017 at 8:38 pm)

    No, axes and swords or spears; this is the Anglo-Saxon period. (Remember it was William the conqueror who brought archers over from Normandy to the battle of Hastings. Harold’s fyrd replied with a furious discharge of light throwing axes, spears and “rude missiles more suited to the neolithic age than to the eleventh century” as one historian put it – very effective apparently at first when the archers had approached too close but lacking the archers’ range, which William exploited later in the battle.)

    could they possess and use those weapons outside of the walls in times of peace

    They were their own weapons which they individually bought (or made) and kept. The axes might be used for cutting wood. The leather or buff armour might be worn forcing a way through rough country. The spears might be used in hunting or defending against wild animals. I expect swords were rarer and more specifically military; Anglo-Saxon society was axe-oriented right up to 1066 (when the Normans discovered with alarm that the best-trained axemen could strike down a knight in armour and his horse with a single axe-blow). AFAIK, the weapon arrangement resembled feudalism: just as the knight paid for, maintained and owned his armour and horse, so it was up to the individual burgher to acquire and manage his ruder and cheaper weapon(s).

    The ‘burghal hidages’ of Wessex (King Alfred and his son) and of Mercia (Alfred’s daughter Athelflaed) are important sources of information in this none-too-well documented time.

  • The foot in the door will be the UK population believing they are in danger and don’t perceive a central government response like armed police as credible anymore.

    This is why the police are excoriated 99% of the time in the press, but after a terror incident the initial Police actions are paened even if they later turn out to be a huge cluster.

  • Paul Marks

    Mr Raymond’s argument sounds convincing – indeed one could broaden it…. Almost alone in the 19th century the United States had no one dominant Church backed by the state – it had many Churches often controlled by local people (the Ulster Scots model rather than the Church of Scotland model). American “Rednecks” (i.e. Protestant Irish – which is what a “Redneck” actually is, although they may have forgotten) fought the Indians just as they had always fought in Ireland – for centuries (individuals or small groups – ambush and counter ambush) and they intermarried with the Indians just as they had intermarried with their enemies at home – it is often not understood how people can kill their own blood kin, but killing someone does not mean you dislike them. Killing may be a personal dispute, or may be a matter of being loyal to different things – one can actually like someone (admire them) and still cut them to small pieces, or put two bullets in their head. As Senator Benton (of Ulster ancestry) said of President Jackson (also of Ulster ancestry) “President Jackson? Of course I remember him. I shot him once. A fine man!” No irony or sarcasm was meant in those words. As former Senator Jim Webb pointed out in his book the “Rednecks” fought all of American’s wars in that if one looks actual combat (killing) it is the “Rednecks” who always at the heart of it (including BOTH sides in the Civil War) – and as Jim Webb was also fond of pointing out the “Rednecks” tend to assimilate other people to their culture, someone could be of German ancestry (like a certain Chuck Yeager) and show classic traits of the culture – if they were born and brought up in, say, West Virginia. A keen intelligence (contrary to Hollywood movies – which tend to show them as stupid) and a desire for, indeed love of, knowledge – but (at the same time) contempt for formal education and paper qualifications, and underlying-everything the capacity for violence – both explosive and quiet (the Audie Murphy type). And, oddly given the image of America, an indifference to material wealth – “that man has 1000 times more money than you, he lives in a palace, you live in a hut with a dirt floor!” – gets the response “so what?” And the words “you MUST do …..” get the response of a few seconds of silence (of thought) and then extreme violence.

    However……

    The people in the big island (Britain) were once just as pro the Right to Keep and Bare Arms as Ulstermen or Americans – the Association of the Preservation of Liberty and Property (John Reeves men during the 1790s) had more armed men that the regular army – and it had is own artillery. The British Bill of Rights, with its right to arms, predated the American one by a century. Even before the invention of firearms English, Welsh and Scottish people were expected to have weapons (military weapons such as longbows) and to do battle. The very definition of a “free man” in both the Germanic (including the Anglo Saxons) and the Classical (Greek and Roman) worlds was “someone who is allowed to own carry weapons” – military weapons.

    Even in 1914 the British National Rifle Association was much bigger than the American one and there was an extensive Constitutional Club network.

    However, some of the British elite no longer believed in the ideas of their ancestors – they believed in different ideas. The idea of Thomas Hobbes that nothing is worth dying for (that one should cling to life without honour), the idea of David Hume that there is no SOUL (no “I”) and that principles can never be held with any degree of certainty, and the idea of Jeremy Bentham and the Mills (James and, with reservations, John Stuart Mill) that rights were nonsense and natural rights were nonsense on stilts, and that policy should be determined by utility calculations (with the enlightened doing the calculations – in their role of guiding the state behind the facade of elections, the old landed aristocracy being replaced by a new aristocracy of “education” in a way that reminds me of the domination of China by the scholar-bureaucrats over the centuries – even a British “Civil Service” was set up inspired by Prussia, as was the American Civil Service).

    It is not reasonable to think that such people would believe in the Right to Keep and Bear Arms – or (in spite of the appeal of J.S. Mill in “On Liberty”) in Freedom of Speech either. I have even lived to see Conservative Party ministers use Frankfurt School of Marxism language such as “Hate Speech”.

    The United States faces many of the same threats – a ruthless enemy that dominates the education system (the schools and universities) and the “mainstream media” (including the entertainment media).

    However, there is resistance to the enemy in the United States – here there is no real resistance (just a few individuals who will be easy for the “liberal” establishment to utterly crush – if they even bother to take any notice of).

    That is why I am always tortured when I consider the United States – hope is torture, because it is bound up with fear. The possibility (slim though it is) that America may survive the “liberal” (really collectivist) attack, gives me the torture of hope, and thus of fear (fear that the hope will fail).

    Whereas I can always think about United Kingdom matters with calmness – as our situation is hopeless. There is no hope – not even the hope of dying well.

  • Phil B

    @ bobby b December 6, 2017 at 1:52 pm

    Strange sort of liberty, where you need to imprison yourself behind walls to be free.

    I recall a time in the UK when they locked criminals away behind bars and let the law abiding roam the streets. Nowadays, the law abiding must lock themselves in their homes, protected by bolts, bars and burglar alarms and never venturing out after dark while the criminals are free to roam the streets.

    Of course, if you interfere with the criminals, it is you that will be punished for taking the law into your own hands. This beggars the question “In whose hands is the law?”. Certainly not the average citizen. The State has the monopoly on violence so it punishes any infringement on its monopoly ruthlessly.

    But as you say, a strange form of liberty when you have to lock yourself behind walls to be free …

  • Paul Marks

    Phil B – the old view of the rights and duties of British people is given in the Ulster Solemn League and Covenant (Covenant for men, Declaration for women) of 1912 – which state that people have the right and the duty to fight for their basic liberties (including their religious liberty) even against the forces of a Parliament – Irish or British.

    Someone such as Sir John Holt, Chief Justice from 1689 to 1710, would have understand the Ulster Covenant and supported it. And similar sentiments are to be found (a couple of a vast number of examples) in the right of revolution in the New Hampshire Constitution of 1784 (Live Free or Die), or the Texas Constitution of 1876, or the Alabama (We Dare Defend Our Rights) of 1901. But to most of the British intellectual elite in 1912 (with some honourable exceptions) the Ulster Covenant was incomprehensible – as they, the intellectual elite, had been taught that Parliament could do anything it liked (violate religious liberty, anything – the “Blackstone heresy” that Acts of Parliament are above Natural Law, developed into the Benthamite that Natural Law, basic liberty rights, DO NOT EXIST AT ALL) and that there were no rights AGAINST the state, that if “rights” existed at all they were nice goods and services from the state not LIBERTY rights AGAINST the state.

    Liberty always dies if people do not understand it and fight for it (the David Hume idea that liberty just “evolves” is false, people who think in terms of “this is just the way we do things around here” inevitably become slaves) and people have to prepared to DIE for the liberty of OTHER people – the Thomas Hobbes doctrine that nothing is worth dying for is the death of liberty.

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