Do US politicians have a mandate for big changes to gun control laws?

Assault rifle - Some rights reserved by thebmagThis article, by the Economist’s Lexington correspondent, David Rennie, is one of the best I’ve read on the inevitable debate on gun control following the appalling shooting in Connecticut last week. His argument is essentially that the only change that might actually have an effect is stopping most people having guns, with the rest only allowed under a tough licensing regime.

But since I read the piece a couple of days ago, it is this penultimate paragraph that has had me thinking:

But here is the thing. The American gun debate takes place in America, not Britain or Japan. And banning all guns is not about to happen (and good luck collecting all 300m guns currently in circulation, should such a law be passed). It would also not be democratic. I personally dislike guns. I think the private ownership of guns is a tragic mistake. But a majority of Americans disagree with me, some of them very strongly. And at a certain point, when very large majorities disagree with you, a bit of deference is in order.

And he’s right. In a Gallup poll last year, a record low of 26% of Americans favoured a ban on handguns. No doubt that figure would increase – perhaps substantially – in a poll taken now, but if the past is anything to go by we shouldn’t expect that increase to be permanent.

So David – and I – have to accept that most Americans disagree with us. But should we, as David suggests, defer to that majority? Or should we do what we can to make politicians act, despite the views of their constituents?

As liberals and democrats, when do we say that government should not act against the wishes of the majority of the citizenry, and when do we say that politicians need to lead from the front, changing public opinion through positive action?

Over to you…

* Nick Thornsby is Thursday Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs here.

Read more by or more about .
This entry was posted in Op-eds.
Bookmark the web address for this page or use the short url http://ldv.org.uk/32276 for Twitter and emails.
Advert

15 Comments

  • In the US, it’s not even really about what the majority of people think (unless that majority is enough to elect two thirds of all national representatives, the President and 3/4 of state governments). This is an issue with written constitutions. Once they become outdated, unless everyone agrees, it’s rather hard to get rid of the ridiculous bits.

    Sadly I don’t think anything Obama does will change much here: if he reintroduces something along the line of the Assault Weapons Ban that was repealed in 2004, then semi-automatic rifles like that used at Newtown would actually still be legal: the bill will be ripped to pieces by clauses, loopholes and specifications. If he tries to do anything more than that, he’ll either fail or risk the very likely chance that it will be found unconstitutional by the SC.

  • Joseph Donnelly 20th Dec '12 - 11:43am

    The problem in the USA is you aren’t starting from a point of zero or significantly small number of guns in circulation. There’s more guns already in circulation than the total population.

    Any kind of ban on handguns would probably have virtually no effect on any ‘criminal’ wanting to get hold of a handgun for decades.

    Obviously there’s the different question of assault rifles, sub machine guns and high ammunition clips but it’s all just tinkering IMHO and won’t change the base problems.

  • This is a central problem for any democrat – what to do when most people disagree with you ? Guns in the USA, Europe & immigration here.
    If the issue is important enough the only thing to do is keep making your point, politely but firmly.
    In America I think the best way to start would be to give up any guns you owned yourself, organise public gun dumps, its a change of heart thats needed & that can only come from below.

  • I lived in America for eleven years and rarely came across guns outside of shooting ranges or the occassional gun shop. Certainly not openely displayed (other than police) or brandished in peoples homes.

    The possession of guns varies from State to State. In the States in which I lived (Hawaii, Colorado and California) only Colorado had a significant gun culture . I therefore think that improvements in Gun control have to start at State Level. Certain states will be prepared to implement strict gun control regulations, perhaps Conneticut and other North Eastern states in the wake of this tradegy, as we did after Dumblane.

    The psycology of Gun ownership in the US is heavily influenced by a long tradition of having the freedom and right to bear arms and the prohibitions common in the UK orJapan would not sit easily with many Americans. That does not mean you can walk around with a weapon or carry one in your car in most states or even that everyone has a gun in their home. Gunowners quite frequently tend to have a collection of weapons while many (if not most) families will have no firearms at all in their home.

    I think President Obama is right to focus as much on access to mental health care as gun control in the effort to reduce the incidence of these horrific public shootings. Canada has as many rifles per capita as the USA but without the frequency of mass shooting incidents. Canada has restrictions on handguns and crucially a health service that provides for free access to mental health care. Combining the two measures, support for mental heath provision at federal level and Canadian style gun control at state level seems to me to have the best chance of success. If leading states can show successful outcomes from the implementation of gun control. it may pave the way for federal regulation in the future.

  • Alex Matthews 20th Dec '12 - 8:45pm

    The main issue here is simple, guns are created with one sole purpose in mind, they are created to kill and I think even the most liberal of us will agree that something with the sole purpose of killing is not compatible with the idea of civilised society,

    The argument that it is too difficult to ban guns is in my mind, moot for two reasons:
    1=Just because something is difficult does not mean it is wrong.
    2=Germany had limited gun regulation until the 1970’s and now it has some of the best gun regulation in the world, as well as far lower gun related murders.

    Now, I would also like to note that the USA has not always been the land of free guns and in fact it was in the 1980’s that the 1968 act law regulating guns was changed to make it ownership much easier. It should not be ignored that it was shortly after this that gun related crime shot up the USA, while in Germany gun related crime dropped massively.

    Finally, the constitution of the USA does not give people the right to own guns, it gives ‘society’ the right to have a professional and organised Militia. This constitution had nothing to do with guns par-say and everything to do with giving people the right to rebel against their leadership or attackers, which is not surprising when we think of how they view themselves and their society. I actually think that the Forefathers would quite aggrieved to see how the US had turned out, especially in this area.

    So, in my opinion at least, guns should be regulated and the arguments against it, are not only wrong, but also baseless in many cases.

  • David Wilkinson 22nd Dec '12 - 6:29am

    If the slaughter of 20 innocent little children in America will not change their minds on the need for guns, then sadly nothing will.
    What an example from the NRA put armed guards in every school. more violence, more death.

    It appears that human life in the USA as no value

  • Martin Lowe 22nd Dec '12 - 9:19am

    It’s all very well us patting ourselves on the back and congratulating ourselves that we have better gun controls than the US, but the fact is that our last wave of gun controls are illiberal.

    The controls brought in post-Dunblane removed handguns from virtually everyone in the UK (save a few vets and gamekeepers for humane reasons); to the extent that the sport of target shooting with pistols was essentially wiped out.

    This was an act of collective punishment imposed on the people of Britain, and essentially arose because Central Scottish Police did not act on intelligence it had received about Thomas Hamilton and used its existing legal powers to confiscate his arsenal. The kneejerk New Labour legislation enacted in Dunblane’s aftermath made events like target shooting at the London Olympics illegal, so another law was needed to temporarily allow the contest and make practicing legal. Ludicrous.

    Maybe other liberals are comfortable with the idea of collective punishment, but to me, it’s the antithesis of what it means to be a liberal.

    The US’s gun problems are manifestations of its social problems. And their laws are complicated by the historical fact of the important role firearms have played in liberating themselves from an oppressive government. Which makes it difficult to apply other nations’ experiences to them – both the rational responses and the kneejerk responses. As far as i see it, the only way forward in the US is for them to think about proper secure storage of legal firearms and to monitor ownership. I’d wager that if you were to ask NRA members if they think the Founding Fathers would have wanted the local Village Idiot to have a musket, a couple of flintlocks and free access to the local school, I’m sure many of them would say no.

  • Alex Matthews 22nd Dec '12 - 1:02pm

    @Martin, your shaky understanding of the US’s history aside, I am so sorry you cannot shoot small animals anymore, I really am, but it is not a ‘collective punishment’ and such emotionally charged arguments do nothing to prove your already watery point.

    Now here are three grounds as to why I believe your point is invalid:

    1=Most of the British people supports these laws and does not want Liberal Gun laws; it is hardly a punishment if people agree with it and are happy with it. That last e-petition on this issue collected just 18 signatures, EIGHTEEN. That is not even enough to support a single shooting range.

    2=To just say, it is American culture’s fault is simplistic and fails to take account of how diverse and complex both the USA and this issue are.

    3=Gun laws are not illiberal, this is because liberalism is not an unqualified right and the whole premise of liberalism is that you are free to do what you want so long as you do not harm others. Guns are designed to kill, nothing more, nothing less, so they could not fall further outside a Liberal’s ideology and the harm principle. Now before you say, it is people, not guns that kill, no, it is people who attempt instigate murder, but the gun is what ends the persons live, and without those guns many of these attempts have a much higher rate of failure. That is why this is a problem, guns make it much easier to harm people. Now if guns served some other purpose besides killing, then maybe we could make an argument for them, heck, this is why certain people are allowed guns, but in most cases, the argument, I like to kill things does little to refute that guns are harmful to society and therefore really you have little to no argument for the legalisation of guns beyond, I like guns. I like tanks, it does not mean that everyone in society should be allowed to own a tank.
    Next, before you say most murders in the USA are committed by people who do not legally own firearms, I would say yes, but the problem is that guns are so easy to get hold of in the USA that 78% (I believe) of gun related crime is committed by legally imported and sold firearms. If you make firearms easy to get hold of in society, you have high gun crime, simple as that. So sorry, I have no problem saying you cannot shoot small animals if that saves the lives of even 20 people, heck I am not too unhappy about the small animals it saves as well.

    That is why this is not illiberal, the right to life can be argued to be an unqualified Liberal right, the right to shoot things simply cannot.

  • Ed Shepherd 22nd Dec '12 - 1:29pm

    @ Alex “So sorry, I have no problem saying you cannot shoot small animals if that saves the lives of even 20 people, heck I am not too unhappy about the small animals it saves as well. ”

    But the post-Dunblane laws did not make it illegal to “shoot small animals”. That is still legal within current restrictions and widely practised throughout the countryside. The post-Dunblane laws made it illegal to shoot paper targets with a cartridge-loading pistol.

  • Martin Lowe 22nd Dec '12 - 2:13pm

    @Alex

    You may feel an element of self-justification in stating I have a shaky understanding of US history, but the perception in the US is that possession of firearms were an important factor for the US people in achieving independence. Your being snotty about others isn’t going to change that fact. And in addition, it’s this arrogant and confrontational attitude that is the reason why in the US there has no progress on gun control massacre after massacre.

    And given your condescending comments about hunting, I’ve never gone hunting never mind shot another living creature.

    As for your points:

    1. Hanging your hat on petitions isn’t what liberalism is about. If it was, then we’d have to support capital punishment. We are liberals because of liberal principles – whether they are currently popular or not.

    2. Quibbling about state by state differences in the US ignores the broad-brush elephant in the room. The problem is US culture. We see this because there’s other countries around the world that have liberal gun laws that do not have the level of gun deaths that the US does. Kneejerk bans on types of firearm following atrocities is no different to the fundamentally flawed Dangerous Dogs Act that only addressed dangerous dogs in fashion at the time – and as we’ve seen, it’s Band-Aid legislation that doesn’t effectively address the heart of the problem.

    3. Have another read of what you wrote:

    “the whole premise of liberalism is that you are free to do what you want so long as you do not harm others.”

    This is absolutely true. And there are thousands of firearms owners still in the UK who are law-abiding and do not harm others. For your information, some of the intelligence Central Scottish Police received about Thomas Hamilton prior to Dunblane was from members of his gun club who were worried by his irresponsible nature on the club ranges.

    These law-abiding people were ignored by CSP, and their reward was to have some of their freedom removed through no fault of their own. You may not like the use of the phrase ‘collective punishment’, but that is exactly what it was.

    We have extremely stringent rules around firearm ownership in the UK. You have to have a clean criminal record. You have to be interviewed by police to get a firearms certificate. You have to show police that you have secure storage for firearms and ammunition (you aren’t allowed to keep the two together). For anything that isn’t a shotgun, the licence is for a particular weapon – if you want an additional rifle, you have to apply all over again. Finally, the police can end firearm ownership for an individual if they have just cause. All perfectly reasonable actions that do not punish people with blanket bans. What is unreasonable is pick-n-mix bans based on knee-jerk politics, populism and a lack of clear thinking.

    I’m not posting to change anyone’s mind. What I am posting for is to point out that anyone who seeks to ban things just because they personally don’t like them isn’t really liberal at all.

  • Alex Matthews 22nd Dec '12 - 3:06pm

    “But the post-Dunblane laws did not make it illegal to “shoot small animals”. That is still legal within current restrictions and widely practised throughout the countryside. The post-Dunblane laws made it illegal to shoot paper targets with a cartridge-loading pistol.”

    I admit, I misread this line. “sport of target shooting with pistols was essentially wiped out.” I have a weird form of dyslexia which means my mind sometimes plays tricks on me. I read that as “sport of game shooting with pistols was essentially wiped out.”

    For that I apologise to Martin.

  • Alex Matthews 22nd Dec '12 - 3:28pm

    @ Martin

    1=Though I will not disagree with you on the point that their is a perception in the US about that, you used the term historical fact which to me meant something different.

    2=In regards to my comments on hunting, as I explained above I misread your comment and for that I must apologise. Hunting and guns are areas I have very strong feelings on and so I let my emotions and dyslexia conspire against me. Once again, please accept my sincerest apologises. In regards to target shooting, well I am not against that and I actually agree with you that there is better ways to deal with this issue than to enact law which basically bans that. However, I still believe that ownership of most guns by most people is a bad thing, but the idea of shooting ranges where the guns never leave the range is something I am not against.

    3=I never said that one petition is conclusive, but my point is that petition is an ‘example’ of just how little support there actually is for liberal gun laws.

    4=The US has the western worlds’ most Liberal Gun laws, it has also has the worst gun related crime rates. Now I agree that culture is an important factor, but this is still a far more complex issue than that with things like geography even playing a part.

    5=”We have extremely stringent rules around firearm ownership in the UK. You have to have a clean criminal record. You have to be interviewed by police to get a firearms certificate. You have to show police that you have secure storage for firearms and ammunition (you aren’t allowed to keep the two together). For anything that isn’t a shotgun, the licence is for a particular weapon – if you want an additional rifle, you have to apply all over again. Finally, the police can end firearm ownership for an individual if they have just cause. All perfectly reasonable actions that do not punish people with blanket bans. What is unreasonable is pick-n-mix bans based on knee-jerk politics, populism and a lack of clear thinking.”
    =You seem to be praising our Laws here and if that is the case, then we agree, I think while they are not perfect and I think they could do with clarification…etc, but on the whole, I like our strict gun laws and have seen no evidence to suggest that we should loosen them.

    “I’m not posting to change anyone’s mind. What I am posting for is to point out that anyone who seeks to ban things just because they personally don’t like them isn’t really liberal at all.”

    In the same vain, as I stated, just because people like something does not mean it should be legal, and I also dislike drugs, but I am fully in support of reform of drug laws because there I think there are real justifications for reform beyond people like it despite its harm. PS I also like shooting air-soft so this is not an irrational hate of guns, just an irrational hate of ‘real’ guns which are made to kill things.

Post a Comment

Lib Dem Voice welcomes comments from everyone but we ask you to be polite, to be on topic and to be who you say you are. You can read our comments policy in full here. Please respect it and all readers of the site.

If you are a member of the party, you can have the Lib Dem Logo appear next to your comments to show this. You must be registered for our forum and can then login on this public site with the same username and password.

Your email is never published. Required fields are marked *

*
*
Please complete the name of this site, Liberal Democrat ...?

Advert



Recent Comments

  • User AvatarDavid Evershed 18th Dec - 12:34am
    In the event of a draw between Conservatives and Labour, continuity of a Con Lib Dem coalition would have a lot going for it because...
  • User AvatarChris_sh 18th Dec - 12:32am
    @Paul Walters Re the UN convention. So any pain up to but not including severe is OK. However, each person has their own pain threshold...
  • User AvatarDavid Allen 18th Dec - 12:29am
    “Nick Clegg has publicly ruled out the option of a ‘supply and confidence’ arrangement in the event no single party wins a majority in May...
  • User AvatarDavid Evershed 18th Dec - 12:24am
    EVEL and devolution of powers within England are separate issues. We should not be using a long and complicated debate about how we might devolve...
  • User AvatarSteve Way 17th Dec - 10:46pm
    Good news each small step is another barrier removed...
  • User AvatarSIMON BANKS 17th Dec - 9:16pm
    LIVE? After his silence on and in the Clacton by-election, I thought he must have secretly died.