The Truth About Britain’s Gun Control

Workers Vanguard

Advocates of gun control in the U.S. frequently cite Britain as a model. The truth of the matter was noted in the article “Bourgeois Hypocrisy and Gun Control Schemes” (WV No. 1015, 11 January) upholding the right to bear arms: “Whereas in U.S. cities the cops round up black and Latino youth on the pretext of drug and/or gun possession, in Britain the cops sweep up black and Asian youth for drugs and/or knives. In both cases, the cops brutalize and kill with impunity.”

One of the main lessons to be drawn from Britain’s strict gun control is that the capitalist rulers will seize on public outrage over horrendous killings by crazed gunmen to impose further restrictions on the right of citizens to arm themselves for self-defense. Britain’s ban on assault weapons was introduced following a 1987 shooting spree in Hungerford, England, in which a lone gunman killed 16 people. Following this atrocity, semiautomatic rifles were banned and shotguns were restricted. Far more drastic was the legislation introduced in the wake of a brutal mass shooting strikingly similar to the recent one in Connecticut: in 1996 in Dunblane, Scotland, a gunman shot and killed 16 young children and their teacher. The following year, Tony Blair’s Labour government banned handguns almost entirely and boasted of having some of the toughest gun laws in the world.

Support for gun control accepts the fallacy that citizens exercising their right to bear arms represent a danger to society while reinforcing illusions in the police, who are a real and present danger to the working class and minorities. In Britain, while the public has been increasingly disarmed the repressive powers of the state have been increased. The commonly accepted image in the U.S. of British cops is that of the “unarmed bobby.” Reality paints a different picture. Elite armed police units have demonstrated their firepower. A case in point was the coldblooded police execution of Jean Charles de Menezes—a Brazilian immigrant and electrician who had been deemed a “terrorism” suspect—in a London Tube (subway) train in 2005. As well, under the pretext of the “war on terror,” armed police units conduct raids on Asian homes.

“Anti-gun” campaigns are in fact a license to kill, and to kill black people in particular. Mark Duggan, a young black man, was blown away by the cops in London’s Tottenham district in 2011, a racist outrage that led to riots in England’s major cities. The riots in turn were met with further rounds of state repression, including “anti-weapons” sweeps in minority neighborhoods. By American standards, the weapons seized were laughable. The arms found in one such raid included “two archaic flintlock pistols, retrofitted flare guns and a Jesse James-style revolver,” as Anthony Faiola reported in the Washington Post (1 February). He noted that the cache “might be better suited to ‘Antiques Roadshow’ than inner-city ganglands.”

The primary point of “anti-weapons” sweeps is to assert the state’s right to a monopoly on violence in society. In Britain, where firearms are increasingly difficult for the public to obtain (while criminals of course can get guns), prosecutors and cops are now beating the drums about “knife violence.” Carrying knives in public in England and Wales today brings mandatory prison sentences, and just being in the company of someone armed with a blade can lead to serious charges. This campaign has been further bolstered by “anti-terror” legislation giving a blank check to the cops to stop and search. In Scotland, justice secretary Kenny MacAskill recently bragged of “a record number of stop and searches” and how “being caught with a knife could now land you a five year prison sentence” (BBC News, 26 November 2012). And after knives it will no doubt be hatchets or longbows.

Britain’s draconian anti-firearms measures date from the efforts of the ruling class to disarm the population in the aftermath of the October Revolution of 1917 in Russia amid tumultuous working-class unrest at home. The background to the Firearms Act (1920) was aptly described by Joyce Lee Malcolm, author of the book To Keep and Bear Arms: The Origins of an Anglo-American Right. In an article “Gun Control in England: The Tarnished Gold Standard” (saf.org), Malcolm observed:

“It was fear of revolution, not crime, that resulted in the first serious gun controls. In 1920 the government faced massive labor disruption, feared a Bolshevik revolution, and worried about the return of thousands of soldiers traumatized by an especially brutal war.” Actually, it was hundreds of thousands.

In Britain, the right of the citizens to bear arms was upheld by the Chartists, which arose as the first mass independent workers movement in the first half of the 19th century. The powerful left wing of the Chartists was republican, internationalist and revolutionary-minded. They asserted their right to arms and bitterly opposed the new, semi-military professional police in working-class districts across the country. Chartism was defeated and demoralized in the aftermath of the failure of the Europe-wide 1848 revolutions and the ensuing political reaction. Later came the rise of the Labour Party, which since its founding in 1900 has worked to tie the working class to the bourgeois order.

In the U.S., the Second Amendment was never about hunting or target practice but about the need for a popular militia to ward off the threat of tyranny. Today this means the right to own assault rifles and other military-grade firearms. It is the task of Marxists to unearth the revolutionary principle of the right to bear arms from underneath a mountain of liberal myths, which stem from upholding the sanctity of the capitalist state. 

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