Not with a bang, with a whimper


Friday, December 9, 2016

How are rights lost? As a rule, the answer is, “In much the same manner as they are won.” Rarely do free societies abandon their liberties in a swoop. Instead, they let them go over time—slowly, subtly, even imperceptibly. Whatever the movies might imply, it is complacency—not shock—that marks the disintegration of once-cherished freedoms. With exquisite precision, the walls are dismantled piece by piece, so that by the time the final brick is removed, there is little surprise to accompany the milestone.

Should Americans lose their Second Amendment-protected rights, it will almost certainly be by dint of this hidden and unlovely process. As a native of Great Britain, I am often asked why the British were so quiet back in 1997, the year their government summarily banned all handguns. (And I do mean all: So complete is the prohibition that the UK’s Olympic shooting team now has to train in France.) “Why,” curious Americans like to inquire, “didn’t anybody do something?”

The answer is elementary: Because the British were at the end of a long century of harsh restrictions, and the citizens had grown quietly accustomed to the infringement of their rights. It is true that the handgun ban was popular; the few protests that were staged that year were small in size and short in length. But it is also true that the citizenry was witnessing the final assault in a long and dulling series. Step by step, the attitudes of the people had been reshaped and transmuted, such that by the time the coup de grace was inflicted, they didn’t know—or care—what they were losing.

Before 1903, there were no gun laws to speak of in the UK. (Readers of a literary bent will recall that Sherlock Holmes frequently accosts passers-by on the streets of London and asks to borrow their pistols.) By 1997, they were manifold. In the interim, a culture was lost.

To review the relevant history is to notice that there was no obvious turning point in the history of British gun control—no dramatic hinge on which the eventual collapse could be hung. Every decade, things just got worse, until eventually there was no road left to travel. In 1903, the British government broke with history and required those who intended to purchase pistols to obtain permission from the police before doing so. In 1920, the right to keep and bear arms—which had been protected within the British constitutional order since 1689—was relegated to a privilege, and the police and the home secretary were accorded control over who was permitted to exercise it. In 1937, the police were granted more power to decide who was eligible for a firearms certificate, and, disgracefully, “self-defense” was removed from the list of acceptable justifications. In 1968, standard long-barreled shotguns were added to the certification regime. In 1988, a national gun registry was introduced and all semi-automatic rifles and pump-action shotguns were prohibited. In 1997, the parliament banned all handguns, including .22s. In 2006, it added airsoft replicas to the list of heavily regulated items. Currently, the British government is debating whether the citizenry should be prevented from owning kitchen knives.

At what point should the British have stood up and said, “No”? In 1937? 1968? In 1989? In truth, they should have resisted at the outset—in 1903.

Speaking before the British parliament in 1775, Edmund Burke noted that in America a “love of freedom” was “the predominating feature which marks and distinguishes the whole”—and to a greater extent than in England. “In other countries,” Burke observed, “the people, more simple, and of a less mercurial cast, judge of an ill principle in government only by an actual grievance.” Americans, by contrast, “anticipate the evil, and judge of the pressure of the grievance by the badness of the principle. They augur misgovernment at a distance; and snuff the approach of tyranny in every tainted breeze.” Or, put another way: Americans tend to see problems coming, even if they’re not yet being hurt.

This idea is also found in philosophy, where it is described either as a “higher-order volition” or a “higher-order desire.” Simply put, those who are deemed to have “higher-order desires” have strong ideas about the sort of things that they would want to want.

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