The British Are Furious Over A Politician's Handgun Proposal -- But What's Really Crazy Is What That Says About America

While reformers struggle to strengthen America’s extremely weak gun control system, it’s worth looking at how different things are overseas.

Guns have been strictly controlled in the United Kingdom for the past few decades, spurred in large part by the 1996 Dunblane massacre, when 15 children and their teacher were killed by a local man who walked into a school in the Scottish city armed with four hand guns and began shooting. Within a year-and-a-half of the killings, private ownership of hand guns was completely banned in mainland Britain. The ban is just one of many restrictive laws on gun ownership in the U.K., but it’s an important one.

Generally, gun control isn’t a big issue in Britain. Perhaps that’s why today’s comments by Nigel Farage, leader of the euro-sceptic protest party Ukip, have made such a big stink. Farage, speaking on London’s LBC radio, was asked about gun control by a caller. He responded that the ban on hand guns in the U.K. was “ludicrous” and that “if you criminalise handguns then only the criminals carry the guns.”

It didn’t take long for Farage’s comments to become a fairly major story in the U.K., with almost all the major news organisations picking it up. Many expressed shock at the comments. Peter Squires, a professor of criminology at Brighton University, told the Telegraph that the comments were a “particularly stupid thing to say.” One Scottish Labour party MP, Ian Mearns, called the idea “bizarre” and said that it proved Ukip was “dangerously extreme.”

Others were even less kind — for them the very fact that Farage could bring up gun control was not just stupid, but offensive. “I used to find Nigel Farage mildly amusing,” Gordon Smart, the editor of the Scottish Sun, tweeted. “Not now. Perhaps he should come to Scotland and explain his views on handguns to Dunblane. Idiot.”

The reaction to Farage requires some context. For one thing, Ukip is a right-wing protest group that has gained a surprisingly large amount of support in the past few years on an anti-EU and anti-immigration platform. The party has been rather controversial: Farage recently had to hide in a Scottish pub after being surrounded by angry protesters who called him a Nazi, for example. Additionally, the party has also been beset by internal problems — Farage recently disowned the party’s 2010 manifesto as “drivel” written by an “idiot” — and the party has been plagued with questions about the extreme views of some of its members.

Still, what’s really remarkable about Farage’s comments and the reaction to them is that from a U.S. perspective, they are not extreme at all. In fact, Farage went to great paints to distance himself from an American style of gun ownership. “I would not like us to go to the American system, which strikes me as absolutely crazy,” he explained in his interview today, “that you can go and buy automatic repeating rifles down at the local gun shop that looks more like a supermarket.” Instead, he argued, that “proper” gun licensing was required for the U.K.

Farage has been linked to similar pro-gun comments in the U.K. before, but it’s still rare for a prominent politician to say something like this so publicly. While there is a vocal minority who want gun laws in the U.K. relaxed, they do appear to be very small — all the mainstream political parties support strict gun laws, and much of the debate centres on whether the U.K., which already has some of the strictest gun laws in the entire world, needs more control.

Likewise, most mainstream media organisations say that while gun crime clearly still exists in the U.K., gun control itself has been a success — the Economist recently pointed to an instance where two gangs in the city of Birmingham were forced to use the same gun in a turf war, rented from a third party, as they either couldn’t find a gun to buy or couldn’t afford inflated black market prices. The scarcity of illegal guns is reportedly so bad that stolen antique guns are frequently used by gangs, and U.K. law enforcement officials now estimate that only around 1,000 guns are in use by criminal elements in the entirety of the U.K.

One of the most useful things to do when thinking about gun control and its controversial place in American society is to consider other countries and their relationship to guns and gun crime. Japan, for example, has very few guns and very few gun deaths — just 11 in the entire country during 2008 — but on the other hand, there’s Switzerland, which has almost as many guns per capita as the U.S. but a very low number of gun deaths. Gun culture clearly isn’t just numbers, it’s about attitude.

The British response to the Dunblane massacre was clearly driven in part by emotions — the murder of 15 children, only 5 or 6 years old, and their teacher, who apparently tried to shield them, is clearly emotive. It’s so powerful that almost 20 years later, if someone questions the logic of the gun laws, and proposes a system that even some American critics of the NRA might be happy with, they are not just criticised but dismissed as “stupid” and an “idiot.” You have to wonder why the U.S. response — where there has been an average of a school shooting every other day so far in 2014 — is so different.

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