Why are British libertarians a bit wobbly when it comes to packing heat?
For American libertarians, gun ownership isn’t even totemic, it’s a no-brainer. Without the means to protect yourself and your property, every other civil liberty is a mere platitude.
Yet for British libertarians gun controls are a bit of a sticky wicket. Far from being an obvious right or necessity, firearms are a source of consternation on this side of the pond.
Are Brits just more squeamish, or are there deeper factors at play?
History is a hugely influential factor in civil liberties in general, and gun control in particular. The US and many European states have a tradition of the citizen soldier; the private citizen expected to maintain a firearm and be ready to answer a call to arms at a moments notice. Given that citizen soldiers were the midwives of the American Republic, so it should come as no surprise that gun ownership has an almost spiritual resonance there. Even after independence, the US expanded voraciously across a continent, with settlers coming into constant conflict with tribes, Mexicans, Canadians and even other settlers. The speed of American expansion meant that Federal authority simply couldn’t keep up; a lack of government therefore made personal weapons a necessity. The link between limited government and personal weapons was established early in the American narrative.
In Europe some degree of central authority had been established long before the sight of black powder weapons on the battlefield. However on a crowded continent the proximity of rival powers made war practically incessant up until 1815 and the Congress of Vienna. Continental powers didn’t have Britain’s luxury of the sea and a navy between them and their rivals. When war came there was a scramble to get fighting men assembled as fast as possible. This was especially true for smaller powers with big ambitions, such as Prussia, Sweden, Poland and Hungary. Therefore it was normal practice for weapons to be kept at home rather than in central arsenals.
Britain’s experience with wars between the 1600’s and the end of Napoleon was dominated by the navy and small expeditions by a designated army. The average individual in Britain would have had very limited exposure to firearms, if at all.
It is also far easier for the likes of the US to defend an existing arrangement than it is for somewhere like Britain to try to fabricate one. For the last half century the trend across the Western world has been the steady erosion of civil liberties and the steady increase in the power of the state. Having had no tradition of mass private gun ownership means that to introduce one to Britain would not only require a legislative expansion of civil liberties, but also a cultural shift of no small scale.
The final factor, linked to the above, is that of perception. In states with a history of gun ownership, private weapons are seen as a right, and in some cases even a duty. In Britain they’re associated with criminals and cantancerous old farmers. Expressing and interest in wanting a firearm to defend your home immediately raises suspicions that you’re a bit odd and maybe even planning some grizzly killing spree. Because normal law abiding people in the UK don’t tend to have guns, we never hear about the attempted rapist thwarted because the woman had a weapon in her possession. We don’t see guns very often, and only hear about them when something terrible happens. This is a powerful combination and goes a long way to explaining why guns have an almost solely connotations image here.
It’s an usual state of affairs when libertarians are content with a situation whereby, by and large, the only people with guns are criminals and the State.
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