It is 20 years since Thomas Hamilton walked into Dunblane primary school carrying four handguns and murdered 17 people, 16 of them children only five years old. The response to this atrocity, from the heart of the British people, was two laws which between them banned the private ownership of handguns altogether. The year after Dunblane there were 59 killings with handguns in Britain; in 2014 there were only 29. Compare this with the situation in America, where, in 1996, 13,252 people died of firearms injuries, and last year 13,393 did. Two weeks ago a woman in Florida who believed passionately in the right to bear arms was shot as she was driving, from the back seat of her car by her own four-year-old son. But the stupidity of America’s gun laws goes far beyond the absurdities of this incident. The rate of gun homicide in the US is around 30 times that of every otherwise comparable developed nation. Yet every attempt to limit the supply of guns in the States is foiled by the money, the passion and the delusions of the gun lobby. It is enough to reduce a decent and responsible president to tears.
There seem, then, to be two principled approaches to the problem of armed criminals. Either the criminals should be disarmed, or the forces opposing them should be better armed. But close examination of the facts shows that neither of these mechanical solutions will work very well. Banning guns does not by itself disarm criminals. Even before Dunblane, most gun crime in Britain was committed with illegal weapons, and since then the use of replica guns, which may or may not have been modified to kill people, has soared. But on the other side of the Atlantic, more than half a million guns are sold in the US every month and this figure spikes every time there is a threat of new laws to control firearms. Nothing will calm the fears of gun owners – yet their fear has not made them any safer and this gigantic arsenal has done nothing to reduce the rate of homicide. Neither approach from principle delivers all it promises, but the American individualistic method delivers far, far less.
Although the American approach is driven in practice by fear and by the tireless commercial work of the gun lobby, it does illustrate one important truth: that law enforcement cannot be left entirely to professionals – a law-abiding society is one where everyone has a stake in the enforcement of laws and believes them just. The police are helpless if they have not earned the trust and confidence of the communities they police. The challenge for the British police, especially when dealing with gun crime, is to maintain the confidence of the communities where young men are most tempted to use or even illegally to acquire guns.
What the confusing statistics really show is that the problem is not what bullets do to their victims, but how guns work on the imagination of their owners. The great popular revulsion after Dunblane, captured by the Snowdrop campaign, stripped much of the glamour from handguns in this country. A real gun is a piece of lethal machinery, not a totem of power or invulnerability. By forcing them off the market the British state has done the right thing, even if it has not solved the problem of violent crime. Let toys for boys really be toys. Fewer people are killed that way.