Out Of Control: US & UK Attitudes To Firearms


Here’s a subject I came across in the online Nature magazine (the academic periodical of British sciences).

Today many Americans see the gun as a symbol of freedom from state control, and credit 1791’s Second Amendment for having saved the newly freed US from the fate of Britain’s other colonies. But in the UK guns were not seen as the bedrock of of liberty.

This is because here, gun ownership was a prerogative of the upper classes and the state. In the past, guns were unwieldy, impractical objects prone to rust and misfiring. The process of loading one was slow enough to cool down the hottest heads. As a result, before the 1790s, guns were not used in crimes of passion, or by the working classes.

When highwaymen and poachers started using guns it was in defiance of sovereign power; taking these newly miniaturised cannons traditionally used by the state in acts of suppression and transforming them into weapons of personal control.

In the US, questions arise about the reference to arms in ‘the right of the people to keep and bear arms’ – does it refer to all firearms? In The UK, a nation without an enshrined constitution, such interpretations can’t occur. Guns, the symbol of government control in the colonies (and in the slave trade) came to be depicted negatively. In times of unrest the government shut down gun use. Once our own policing units were introduced Victorians surrendered to the state bodies and armed outlaws vanished.

In the colonies gun control was racialized to keep guns out of the hands of non-whites. Disarmament in British colonies and armament in the US served colonial purposes. Attempts to control arms after WW1 supposedly failed because the US wanted no part in protecting European empires, and didn’t want to harm its own arms exports to Latin America.

As a result, the UK and the US radically diverged on gun control from the 19th century onwards. In the UK guns are still not seen as symbols of freedom but as representations of lawlessness. When the law appears to break down, it is supported at a grass-roots level until guns are once more removed from society. In recent years the police have massively reduced gun crime by controlling the supply of bullets, every one of which is traceable. But the key difference between our two mentalities is what a gun represents to us. Not protection but chaos. Not freedom but slavery.

15 comments on “Out Of Control: US & UK Attitudes To Firearms”

  1. Joel says:

    I have always been dubious of ‘the right to bear arms’ ass that is only a segment of the amendment to the US Constitution. That right in the strict sense is only in time of strife, not for a trip to the shops. Or have I misread it?

  2. Roger says:

    I’ve read that the “well-regulated militia” was actually a reference to militias used to pursue escaped slaves, which gives a rather different meaning to it.

  3. Trace Turner says:

    As with so many things, you simply have to look for the money. The National Rifle Association has been a huge driving force in the “protection” of gun ownership rights. They have raised millions of dollars using the fear that any gun control will ultimately end up with the confiscation of all guns. They have used money that to bankroll politicians at all level of governments as well as their own schemes.

  4. Brooke says:

    Looking to the $$$. Hedge funds, investment partnerships enjoying minimal regulation and lots of tax protection, hold stakes in well-known gun manufacturers. Gun sales were stagnant until funds did a major campaign saying Obama would enforce stricter control to boost sales. Following the horrible Sandy Hook Elementary School killings, a name&shame campaign reduced some hedge fund investments. The NRA is being investigated; association with russian agents, misappropriation of fund, etc. There is hope that its influence through politcal donations will be vastly reduced.

    Militia originally referenced the colonies fear of central control and in the absence of any organized police protection, recognized the rights of communities to defend themselves. It was generally a volunteer group. In the Northern states well-regulated militia would not have been an effective tool for pursuing slaves–it may have been an excuse in the South.

  5. Ken Mann says:

    Jeremy Bentham on gunpowder: “It is as remote as possible from the character of a necessary of life. It is as pure a luxury as any that can be imagined, and a luxury the use of which is attended with danger and mischief in a variety of shapes”

  6. Helen Martin says:

    Canada has generally followed UK thinking with the exception of people living in isolated areas where hunting provided food and protection against bears and other wild animals was necessary. In some areas that is still true and those residents often react in ways similar to Americans when the word “control” is used. We are in the middle of an election campaign and gun control comes up frequently as a topic of debate. Justin has said he will ban assault rifles and other military long guns (how much fire power do you need to kill a deer?) but he doesn’t comment on the subject of hand guns, which seems odd, since there is no need in urban areas for guns at all and what death happens from them is usually gang related. (Surely the gangs aren’t funding the Liberal campaign.) The Conservatives won’t mention gun control because Alberta has pools of former Americans and that has always been a voting bloc for them. The NDP doesn’t seem to make it a priority and the Greens are just plain anti-guns.

  7. Debra Matheney says:

    America is bat s—t crazy on the gun issue, and I hold little hope it will change. If Sandy Hook with 6 year olds being killed did not change minds, nothing will. Our founders could not have envisioned AK-47’s in the hands of anyone. We allow ordinary people to own weapons of war. Way too stupid for words. I agree with Brooke’s analysis of militias. Until recently this was the interpretation but the gun lobby shifted it to make $$$$. Even with the IRA in financial disarray, Congress never moves on gun control. And people here don’t own one gun:they have arsenals.

  8. Rachel Green says:

    Well said, sir.

  9. Peter Dixon says:

    In English rifle can also mean ‘to steal, to rob, to walk away with’. I’d suggest that The National Rifle Association is aptly named since it steals peoples lives and robs families of hope while walking away with money.

  10. Eliz Amber says:

    I’ve personally known eight people killed by handguns bought for ‘protection’. The NRA is absolutely toxic – not only on the subject of guns, but because they pour money into campaigns against Democrat candidates, they’re supporting the whole conservative agenda.

    We’ve seen it over and over – even their members don’t think people need semi-automatic weapons, and support background checks. And we can’t get anywhere on the subject, because the NRA holds so much power.

  11. Kurt Duerksen says:

    The majority of American people want sensible gun control. American politicians are bought by the NRA and prevent gun laws from being passed. They also push the distortion of the 2nd Amendment. Most of us believe people’s lives are much more sacred than someone’s hobby. Seeing as Russia has been using the NRA to continue to divide us, we are facing more death and harm from White Nationalists.

  12. Lauren says:

    American colonial militias weren’t formed because of fear of centralized control: there was no money for a standing army, and the population was too sparse to supply the men. Remember that the colonial period began in 1607; it wasn’t until the mid-1700s (French & Indian War) that the English colonies started getting huffy about the costs for their defense being charged back to them via new taxes. And it was pretty much downhill from there. But even then, it’s been estimated that only 40-45% of the colonists supported the Revolution, with another 15-20% supporting the Crown, and the rest waiting to see who was going to win.

  13. Helen Martin says:

    Those numbers are interesting, Lauren, and I think probably accurate. The British government assisted those who wanted or needed to leave to do so. Some went to the Caribbean islands and some went to or back to Britain but so many went to Nova Scotia that they had to divide that colony and create New Brunswick.
    There is a children’s book called Charlotte which tells the story of a New York ten year old who was thrown out by her father for talking to her Loyalist cousin. That family took her with them to New Brunswick, where she became the grandmother of one of our Fathers of Confederation. The Revolution was not as straight forward as some would have us believe. And I really dislike the local types who try to bring the “right” to own guns into discussions. We have you declare a reason for purchasing poisons, we license drivers and the sale of hunting knives is watched by responsible sellers. Guns are even more so.

  14. Wayne Mook says:

    One of the interesting things about British gun laws are the 2 different licenses, The shotgun license. the shotgun which is seen as an all-round working and sports weapon and other guns which did include hand guns until there were band.

    Also the view of weapons, if you have one that is intent and if you point it at someone it’s seen as if you are going to shoot someone and the police act on that. I remember talking to a police officer from Chicago who was on an exchange here in Manchester. He thought our police were mad when it came to use of weapons, that they aim to stop (a body shot and if that doesn’t work the next is a head shot.) not to wound. We pointed out to him a lot of the training was originally army training and some from the SAS. The good old days of the 80’s & 90’s.


  15. Ian Luck says:

    In my definitely mis spent youth, I fired guns belonging to friends – at things, like old toys, bottles, even proper targets. I liked doing it – but here’s the thing – the thought of shooting an animal or, god forbid, a person, filled me with horror. Quite happy to shoot holes in the side of an ‘Action Man’ tank (someone will condemn me for that, I’m sure), but a person? Nope.

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