What makes a civil
liberty particularly vulnerable to a slippery slope?
This section discusses some particular factors that have
made gun rights, like most of the rest of the freedoms
guaranteed in the American Bill of Rights, particularly
vulnerable in Great Britain: its structure of
government, and its civil liberties organizations.
Before addressing those topics, this Essay will
consolidate the factors that have been touched upon in
The first factor
that undermined the British right to arms was a
technological change when revolvers came to be seen by
some persons as much more dangerous than previous
This same phenomenon can be seen in the treatment of
other technological advances, such as the automobile,
which from the 1920s onward, has often been treated by
the United States Supreme Court as a "Constitution-free
zone", where searches and seizures in contravention of
normal Fourth Amendment standards may take place.
second factor that undermined the British right to arms was
the role of the media, with its lurid and exaggerated
accounts of gun crime in the 1880s, or its vicious
denunciations of recreational shooters in the 1990s. This
suggests that slippery slopes may be less dangerous when the
right in question is supported by the press, as free speech
and abortion rights are in the modern United States.
Conversely, slippery slopes may be more dangerous when the
press is indifferent, as in the case of federalism and
states' rights, or actively hostile, as in the case of gun
undermining factor was the development of government
mistrust of the people, as in the 1920 fears of Bolshevism.
We may hear echoes of this today in the United States
government's fears the militia movement and its allies.
Certainly, however, the dangers posed by the modern militia
movement are much smaller than the dangers posed by Soviet
communism and its United States agents in the 1950s or by
violent anarcho-syndicalism in the early twentieth century.
Consequently, the related suppressions of civil liberties
have been smaller.
"subversive" group in the United States today is not
anarcho-syndicalists, militia members, or Fenians, but drug
users. They are "traitors in the War on Drugs" according to
much public rhetoric, and according to the United States'
moralist-in-chief William Bennett, public beheadings of drug
users would be a good idea. Over the last two decades, no
force has been more important in eroding the civil liberties
of all Americans, drug users and abstainers alike, than the
War on Drugs.
shifting of the burden of proof, both at law and in popular
discussion, was the fourth factor degrading the British
right to arms. Rather than the government having to prove
that a particular gun-owner or a particular type of gun was
dangerous, the gun-owner began to have to prove his "good
reason," and the government began deciding to outlaw weapons
that the government did not think anyone outside the
government had a good reason to own.
"added authority" problem described by Schauer was of great
significance. Once the people agreed that Parliament had the
authority to decide whether to ban any type of gun, or to
decide how people could acquire guns, a wide range of
restrictions became intellectually conceivable. Even more
significantly, once the police were given authority over
licensing, they were able to use that authority to impose
many additional controls, and to reduce the number of
licensed shooters. In addition, Parliament's allowing the
Home Office to ban weapons by administrative edict has
resulted in certain weapons such as swordsticks being banned
for no good reason.
suggests that often the most important aspect of a
particular restriction on civil liberty, as least in terms
of slippery slope dangers, is not the content of the
restriction, but who will decide its contours. For example,
the 1994 Congressional ban on "assault weapons" contained a
complete definition of what an "assault weapon" is, and gave
the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms no
discretionary authority to add guns to the banned list.
Thus, the potential future expansion of the law was
constrained. Conversely, the most important aspect of
Canada's latest gun control law, Bill C-68, is not that it
bans some handguns, but that it gave the Prime Minister and
his appointees the authority to ban any other weapon they
want, without asking Parliamentary approval. Thus, how much
"added authority" one control creates for future controls is
a fifth important factor in estimating slippery slope
Additionally, how many people are there who care to resist
infringement of a right? Few politicians seriously propose a
total gun ban in the United States because there are seventy
million gun-owning households--about half the population.
But only about four percent of the British population
legally owns guns--a much smaller interest group. If, over
the course of generations, the percentage of a population
that is interested in a right can be gradually reduced,
stricter controls become more politically feasible, and the
stricter controls can further reduce the long-term number of
people who exercise their rights.
suggests the long-term importance of young people exercising
their rights. If high school newspapers have large staffs
that fearlessly report the truth, the future of the First
Amendment is better protected. If, conversely, laws prevent
teenagers from target shooting or hunting, the future of the
Second Amendment is endangered.
potential reason that a polity might move further down a
slippery slope is that the polity sees the previous step as
being useful. For instance, if a City Council imposed a 10
p.m. curfew for sixteen-year-olds, and night-time crime
perpetrated by sixteen-year-olds fell significantly and
immediately, the city council would likely consider
extending the curfew to seventeen-year-olds. In the United
States, there is no shortage of studies claiming that laws
tightening gun controls (like the Brady Act) or laws
relaxing gun controls, like laws allowing trained citizens
to carry a concealed handgun for protection, reduce crime.
Scholars such as John Lott, Gary Kleck, Arthur Kellerman,
Garen Wintemute, and others, carry on a steady debate about
the empirical benefits of various firearms policies. Anyone
who follows the firearms debate seriously will soon
encounter one of these social scientists on a television
interview. The gun control debate in Canada likewise
includes scholars such as Gary Mauser and Thomas Gabor, who
make various empirical research claims for or against
particular gun policies.
American point of view, one of the truly odd characteristics
of the British gun debate is the apparent irrelevance
of social science. To the extent that any research is cited,
the research is from North America, or involves transnational comparisons. Nobody cites British quantitative
research because none exists other than raw crime statistics
collected by the Home Office.
statistics do make some facts clear: when Britain had no gun
control (early in the twentieth century) or
moderately-administered gun control (in the middle of the
century), Britain had virtually no gun crime. Today, Britain
literally has substantially more gun crime, as well as more
violent crime in general. From 1776 until very recently, the
United States has suffered a much higher violent crime rate
than Britain, regardless of whether British gun laws were
liberal or strict. In recent years, however, the once-wide
gap in violent crime has disappeared. This gap was closed by
a moderate drop in American crime rates, coupled with a
sharp rise in the British rates. One does not hear British
gun control advocates touting statistics about how crime
rates fell after previous gun laws were enacted.
Rather, the advocacy is based on the "inherent danger of
guns," and on the "horror" of Dunblane and Hungerford. Even
though Britain shows that demonstrated empirical success is
not essential for movement down a slippery slope, success
does help. The drop in New York City's crime rate following
Mayor Rudolph Guliani's aggressive policing policies, which
were roundly condemned by the New York Civil Liberties
Union, has encouraged other cities to adopt similar
policies. This, in turn, made Guliani's brand of
authoritarian conservatism an important element in the
national Republican party's thinking about crime policy.
are certainly other factors that may affect the potential
danger of a given slippery slope. The seven factors that
this Essay has discussed, however, could be usefully
analyzed in many different situations to examine the
relative risks of a slippery slope argument. In addition to
these seven factors there are several other factors that
made the right to arms so vulnerable in Britain--and which
also have implications for civil liberties in the United
States. It is to these additional factors that this Essay
government cuts back on civil liberties, it couches its
actions in the reasonable-sounding language of
"balancing." For example, under the Public Order Act of
1986, organizers of marches must give seven days notice
to the police, and it is illegal for a person to
participate in a march that has not complied with
the Public Order Act. The Act was initiated by Home
Secretary Douglas Hurd, author of the 1988 gun controls.
The Home Office claimed that it was balancing "the
rights of those who wish to demonstrate and the
interests of the wider community."
The Police Act, authorizing incommunicado detention, was
promoted as a "balance" between police powers and
Likewise, Hurd justified the 1988 gun controls as "a
better balance between the interests of the genuine
sportsman and the safety of the public as a whole."
The gun lobby's concession that guns are only for
sports, and not for defense, ensures that the balance is
always tipped against the gun owner. If guns make no
positive contribution to personal or public safety, the
public's concerns about safety must always override the
gun owners' interest in sports.
rhetoric of balancing is dangerous because it tends to give
too much weight to the short-term concerns of public safety.
Thus, the American right that has been most subject to
balancing, the Fourth Amendment, has suffered badly in the
United States Supreme Court.
More fundamentally, the "balancing" that legislatures or
courts sometimes do is not their job, because the balancing
has already been done. Whether in the 1689 Bill of Rights,
which was to apply "for all time," or in the 1789-91 United
States Constitution, a balance was struck. Because of this
balance, governments were prohibited from doing certain
things since, in the long run, public safety and liberty
were both enhanced by preventing short-term considerations
from controlling. Thus, when the Blaisdell Court
"balanced" its way around the Constitution's absolute ban on
the impairment of contracts, and upheld Minnesota's debtor
the Court did not merely err--the Court usurped power and
attempted to re-open the question that the Contracts Clause
had decided with finality.
rights are protected with bright lines, as the First
Amendment usually is, then rights are particularly secure
against slippery slopes. When rights are subjected to
"balancing" (a/k/a "reasonableness") tests by courts, as the
Fifth Amendment Takings Clause often is, then rights are
particularly vulnerable. And when a society has lost the
theory of constitutional absolutes as Britain has, and
replaced this with "balancing," then every right is in
British government praises "balancing," the lack of
checks and balances within the government itself
endangers liberties. Any United States law,
including a restriction on liberty, must be approved by
the legislative and the executive, enforced by the
executive, and upheld by the courts. The independence of
the legislature, executive, and judicial branches in the
United States is a deliberate formula for government
gridlock, for it ensures that government cannot speak
with a single voice.
contrast, the British Parliament is supreme. An act of
Parliament that is clearly expressed cannot be questioned on
constitutional grounds by any British court.
A majority in Parliament means control of the entire
government. The party leader--the Prime Minister--and the
leader's close advisors have a much easier time turning
their unchecked will into law than do their counterparts in
the United States or Canada.
The British system does not mean legislative supremacy, but
rather executive supremacy, since the leader of the dominant
party in Parliament faces no effective opposition or check.
There is, 300 years after the Glorious Revolution, an
unexpected new "monarch"--the Prime Minister. As a practical
matter, the Parliament today acts as less of a check on the
supreme executive's power than Parliament did in 1613, when
King James I asserted the divine right of kings. The modern
"servile but supreme parliament" is no longer a restraint on
executive power, but instead an instrument of that power.
seventeenth century prelude to the English Civil War, as
Parliament took control of the militia away from the King,
Parliament exalted itself as the "epitome" of the nation,
insisting "there can be nothing against the arbitrary
Supremacy of Parliaments." Indeed, it was commonly said that
"Parliament can do no wrong."
The fiction of a King, who embodied all national sovereignty
and could do no wrong, was replaced with the fiction of an
equally absolute Parliament.
Unfortunately, modern Britain's politics derives more from
the seventeenth century absolutism than from the eighteenth
century common law described by Blackstone, in which
the "right of the individual" to arms was meant for "the
natural rights of resistance and self-preservation, when the
sanctions of society and laws are found insufficient to
restrain the violence of oppression." In Blackstone's time,
and for many decades thereafter, Britons believed that they
had the same right that citizens of the United States
claimed in the Declaration of Independence--to "alter or
abolish" their government by force, if the government became
slippery slope Britain has descended in just a century! When
the century dawned, Blackstone's right to resist oppression
was the law. Today in Britain, only the Libertarian Alliance
dares to argue about a right of resistance. Regarding the
issue of the government's absolute sovereignty, the British
government holds a tighter ideological grip over its
subjects today than most British governments since 1689 ever
dreamed of achieving.
Virtually no one in the debates surrounding the creation of
the United States constitutional government, or in the two
centuries of that government's existence, has asserted that
any branch of government deserved absolute power. A person
insisting that "Congress can do no wrong," would be making a
joke. The "checks and balances" of the United States
Constitution reflect the explicit choice of the its framers
that government was itself something that needed to be
controlled--by the internal checks of three equal branches
The United States' system of checks and balances constrains
the central government by dividing its power. Thus, slippery
slope problems in the United States take longer to develop
than those in Great Britain. Thus, almost any slippery slope
argument made in Great Britain is inherently more plausible
than the same argument made in the United States, although
the ultimate harm may be the same.
the United States Constitution's separation of powers is a
very powerful protection against slippery slope degradation
of its citizens' individual rights, United States citizens
must be particularly vigilant that the separation of powers
itself does not fall victim to a slippery slope. The
British, after all, once separated their powers--between a
House of Commons, a House of Lords, and a Monarch.
But over time, the first has arrogated to itself all but the
tiniest remnant of the national government's political
Indeed, there is now discussion of the House of Commons, by
its own fiat, abolishing the House of Lords or the Monarchy.
conditions in the United States are, however, no cause for
complacency. As Bruce Ackerman details in We the People:
Transformations, the central government now exercises
vast powers which were never granted by the text of the 1789
Constitution, and the separation of powers between the
central government and the states has been severely damaged,
far beyond the change in federal/state relations that the
Fourteenth Amendment wrought.
Also severely damaged is the separation of powers between
the three branches of the central government. David
Schoenbrod's superb Power without Responsibility: How
Congress Abuses the People Through Delegation details
how Congress, the Executive, and the Judiciary have
collaborated in a vast transfer of Congress's Article I
lawmaking authority to the Executive branch.
Additionally, the slippery slope of executive branch
lawmaking continues to worsen. In earlier decades the
Executive Branch made law almost exclusively through formal
regulations or through quasi-judicial adjudications--a
usurpation of the legislature's law making power and the
judiciary's Article III powers. Currently, however,
executive law making often tends to slip even the restraints
of the Administrative Procedure Act, as the Executive branch
invents "law" through the creation of "guidelines"
implementing federal statutes.
The "guidelines" are de facto law for the vast number of
citizens and businesses attempting to comply with what the
legions of federal enforcement officers demand. Although the
guidelines are not formally enforceable in court, only a
small minority of the victims of illegal executive
law-making are able to spend the money necessary to go to
federal court and win a ruling three years later that
guidelines are not law.
Civil liberties in
Britain lack the shield of a written constitution
enforced by judicial review. Civil liberties endure only
so long as Parliamentary majorities respect unwritten
traditions or the statutes of previous Parliaments, such
as the Bill of Rights. A civil liberties leader in the
House of Lords has argued for the importance of a
are built into American life by the Constitution,
and protected by a court, the Supreme Court of the
USA. Not so in my country. "Human rights" is not a
term of art in English law. Civil liberties--yes,
our courts understand them and protect them. We rely
on the common law: but the common law has no
constitutional protection against the inroads of the
legislature. Judges are, in terms of power,
subordinate to parliament. Mr. Justice Brennan's
approach to human rights is the pearl of great price
that we have lost in the rough seas that prevail
outside the world of a written constitution.
the British government believes that it functions just
fine without a written constitution, the British
government only grants approval to shooting clubs if
they are "a genuine target shooting club with a written
What topsy-turvy priorities for a body politic: Safety
dictates that the law must demand "a written
constitution" from each approved shooting club; but
there is no "written constitution" demanded for the
British government--which is vastly more important, and
more dangerous than all the gun clubs put together.
differing constitutional policies of the United States and
Britain, and the differing fate of the right to bear arms in
the two nations, can be traced in part to the revolutionary
times that gave birth to the formal recognition of the right
to bear arms in each nation. The Second Amendment was
written just a few years after an armed United States fought
a long and violent revolution that overthrew what many
United States citizens considered an imperial dictatorship.
The closest the British people ever came to successfully
overthrowing a government was watching passively when
William of Orange frightened James I into fleeing the
country, in the Glorious Revolution of 1688-1689. And the
resultant statutory "Bill of Rights" was as close as Britain
ever got to a strong written Constitution protecting a right
to bear arms.
The resultant Bill of Rights enacted by Parliament in 1689
has turned out to be of little value in protecting even a
small core of a "right" to own guns in Britain. In contrast,
the appeal that a United States citizen makes to the
Bill of Rights is an appeal to the highest law, and a claim
of entitlement. Gun owners in the United States, and a very
large majority of the United States public, believe that
they have a right to bear arms. In fact, legal scholarship
now overwhelmingly endorses the "Standard Model" of Second
Amendment interpretation, holding that the Bill of Rights
provides a meaningful, individual right to keep and bear
arms, which does restrict government.
Akhil Amar observes how the United States' Bill of Rights
grew in importance over time. It was like the Decalogue,
with ten essential fundamental rules.
The United States' Bill of Rights had an important advantage
over its British ancestor: the United States Bill was part
of a larger document, and that larger document--the
Constitution--was universally acknowledged to be superior to
the federal government. The United States' federal
government was under the Constitution, everyone agreed. And
therefore the United States' federal government must be
under the Bill of Rights, since the Bill of Rights is part
of the Constitution. But the British Bill of Rights hangs by
itself. It is not attached to the written constitution for
the British government.
lesson of slippery slopes is that the strength with which a
right is expressed in fundamental law can make a great
difference. The Second Amendment has undeniably made a huge
difference in the progress of the gun debate in the United
States. Imagine the debate if there were not millions of
political activists, and a huge majority of the public, who
believed that ownership of a guns was a constitutional
the fate of the right to arms in the United States with the
fate of the right to medical choice. Suppose that Madison
had included a right to medical liberty in the Bill of
Rights, and the nation had ratified it. With an explicit
constitutional right to medical choice, would United States
citizens have ever allowed their government to get to the
point that it denies the best painkillers (such as heroin)
to terminally ill people in incurable pain? To deny various
treatments to people who conventional treatments are failing
to save from cancer? To use the interstate commerce power to
make felons out of people undergoing chemotherapy who
control their nausea by smoking a homegrown hemp plant--a
plant which George Washington grew on his farm?
aspects of freedom that are traditional, but which are not
enumerated in the Constitution, may be especially vulnerable
to slippery slopes. For example, the right to privacy, the
right to self-defense, the right to move around (by foot or
by auto); and the right to medical freedom all deserve
protection against further encroachment because small
encroachments may snowball. Some readers will object that
something on this paragraph's list of unenumerated
rights are not really rights at all, and deserve no
protection. This objection confirms that the rights in
question are at risk, and therefore need special
guardianship from [errata: by] persons who believe in the
The United States'
National Rifle Association is sui generis; it is the
only gun rights lobby in the world to be one of the very
most influential lobbies affecting its government. The
American Civil Liberties Union is not as legislatively
powerful as the NRA, but it too is vastly more
influential on government than are the ACLU's foreign
British lobbies accuse the United States of going too far.
Commented the general secretary of the National Council for
Civil Liberties of England and Wales, "[u]nlike the American
Civil Liberties Union, we feel that freedom of speech is not
an absolute." Thus, Britain's NCCL decided not to oppose
legislation prohibiting the public expression of racist
The National Council on Civil Liberties favors suppression
of racist speech, and has even refused to represent racist
clients on other issues.
Similarly, British gun organizations criticize the laxity of
United States gun laws.
When the Home Office imposed major new restrictions on gun
clubs, the Chief Executive of Britain's National Rifle
Association affirmed his assent by simply noting that "the
Government saw a need."
In the United States, the notion that a civil liberties
group or a national shooting organization would support a
reduction in freedom simply because "the government saw a
need," is almost too absurd to contemplate.
gun-owners must accept much of the blame for their
current predicament because of their concession that
guns were only appropriate for sports. When the Home
Office in the 1980s began complaining that some people
were obtaining guns for protection, British Shooting
Sports Council joined the complaint: "This, if it is a
fact, is an alarming trend and reflects sadly on
One hunting lobby official condemned "the growing number
of weapons being held in urban areas" for reasons having
nothing to do with sport. The major hunting lobby, the
British Association for Shooting and Conservation,
defended the right to arms, but only, in its words, "the
freedom to possess and use sporting arms."
BASC's stance may appear to be a "reasonable" position,
which demonstrates that gun-owners are not bloodthirsty nuts
wanting to shoot people. Rather, shooters are harmless
sportsmen, and licensed guns belong in the same category as
cricket bats or golf clubs. In practice, however, the
concession that guns are only for sports undermines defense
of the right to bear arms. If guns are not to be owned for
defense, then guns make no positive contribution to public
safety. If the sovereignty of the central government is
absolute, then the people's ownership of arms makes no
positive contribution to a sound body politic.
libertarian Sean Gabb points out that the British gun
lobbies' support of gun licensing undermines the lobbies'
arguments that licensed gun owners are not part of the gun
crime problem. As Gabb writes: "[b]ut if control is needed,
and if it can be made to work, the fact that it did not
prevent Thomas Hamilton from shooting those poor children is
surely an argument at least for tightening it in future."
Gabb further argues that British gun owners have been losing
battle after battle and have therefore shriveled in numbers
because "you all failed to put the real case for guns--that
their possession for defence is a moral right and duty, as
well as a positive social good."
Instead, the many eloquent MPs who spoke against handgun
confiscation pointed to all the admirable sporting uses of
sporting guns: by handicapped people in the paralympics; by
British athletes in the Olympics and in the Commonwealth
Games; and by ordinary Britons on a Saturday afternoon of
anti-ban MPs spoke well, but the prohibitionists' argument,
while simple, was intellectually stronger. There are
substitutes for sports; displaced handgun shooters can still
use rifles or shotguns or airguns. But there is no
substitute for a child's life. Even if virtually all
handguns are never misused, at the very least, once in a
while a handgun will be. If complete prohibition saves one
life, it's worth it.
The score in this debate, for potential lives saved was Gun
Ownership: zero; Gun Prohibition: perhaps one or
more. If this is the only calculus, then prohibition
is a clear winner.
Labour's winning argument, Prince Philip made another of his
"insensitive" comments: that other sports were dangerous
too. A person with a cricket bat would be able to commit a
murder, he noted. True enough, and the media response to his
comment was not very powerful on the logical front; the
Prince's comment supposedly showed that he was insensitive
to the Dunblane victims' families.
In contrast, Labour arguments offered in Parliament on the
day the total handgun ban passed were more logical. Namely:
a gun is deadlier than other sporting tools, which is not
surprising, since guns were designed for killing.
If guns are to survive in a rational political debate, then
they must be defended on the basis that guns are legitimate
for shooting violent criminals when lesser force will not
suffice. In the United States, even the gun prohibition
groups concede that guns are used 60,000 to 80,000 times a
year for self-defense. Most studies suggest that the number
is in the hundreds of thousands, or millions.
The number is undeniably large. This agreed-upon large
number of legitimate self-defense cases weighs heavily in
the debate on gun control. A logical public official must
consider that, while a particular gun control proposal may
promise a reduction in gun misuse that hurts people, the
particular gun control might also impair some of the many
instances of guns being used to save people. On the United
States balance, there are potential lives saved on each side
of the scale. In the British balance, lives are saved only
on the prohibition side.
particular right's vulnerability to a slippery slope may
depend on whether its advocates can answer the following
question: "If your right kills just one more child, is your
right really worthwhile?" What if, after the infamous Nazi
march in Skokie, Illinois, a person who watched the parade
had been inspired to emulate Hitler, and, three months
later, he strangled two Jewish children? What could the ACLU
say to their parents? The ACLU could argue that by making
sure that the government can never control speech because of
its political content, we help ensure that the government
cannot suppress dissent. If government could suppress
dissent, then hundreds or millions of children might be
killed. We should remember, as the ACLU would add, that the
Nazis felt it necessary to use their control of the press to
prevent the German public from learning that the Holocaust
was taking place. Thus, the ACLU could argue that its policy
of defending Nazi speech is, ironically, important to the
long-run prevention of Nazi practice. This absolutist ACLU
position of free speech has become the law of the land.
Nazi child-killing case was a hypothetical, but the National
Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers really does face
cases where enforcement of a criminal procedure element of
the Bill of Rights lead to the release of criminals who
murder children. Yet the NACDL can respond that its position
saves lives; without a strong Bill of Rights, innocent
people might be given capital punishment, or imprisoned for
the rest of their lives.
support the right to keep and bear arms for defense, as
opposed to the privilege to use sporting weapons,
British gun owners have also been unwilling to band
together for defensive purposes. While Britain has a
large number of groups that promote particular shooting
disciplines, such as the Clay Pigeon Shooting
Association, the National Small-Bore Rifle Association,
and the United Kingdom Practical Shooting Association,
most of these organizations content themselves simply
with running their own competitions. Getting involved in
legislative affairs would hardly occur to them and they
would never dream of getting involved in legislative
affairs on an issue that did not affect their own
discipline. The clay pigeon folks paid no attention to
how the government was restricting handguns, nor did the
handgunners care much about what the government did to
the rifle shooters. Indeed, during the debate on the
post-Dunblane handgun ban, one might hear a shotgunner
claiming that people who enjoy practical pistol shooting
are "killers," while a handgunner on a television
program retorted that rifles and shotguns are more
dangerous than handguns.
This rhetoric is the political equivalent of gun-owners
forming a firing squad by standing in a circle.
Contrast the my-shooting-sport-only stance of so many
British gun-owners with the policy of the American Civil
Liberties Union, which not only defends speech it favors,
but also speech that it loathes, as was the case at Skokie.
The ACLU understands that the principle used to suppress
anyone's speech can be used to suppress everyone's.
firing-squad-in-a-circle attitude of some British gun owners
is apparent among some shooters in the United States. Some
hunters complain when the NRA defends semi-automatic rifles
used by target shooters. Some target shooters complain that
the NRA is too involved in fighting for people who want to
carry handguns for protection, and almost everybody is
willing to let the already heavily-regulated machine gun
shooters get regulated out of existence. Nevertheless, the
historical accident that the shooting sports in the United
States are unified under a single National Rifle Association
helps mitigate the tendency to circular firing squads.
Although there have been internal struggles, the NRA has
always maintained a leadership and a political stance
that regards an attack on one type of gun as an attack on
all types of guns.
It is for this reason that the NRA defends the right to own
small, inexpensive handguns, also referred to as "junk guns"
or "Saturday Night Specials," even though the NRA's
membership does not have much of a direct stake in the guns.
The NRA recognizes that bans on any given type of gun just
sets the stage for banning another gun and every time a gun
is banned and its owners disarmed, there are fewer people
left to stand up for the Second Amendment. It is true that
many of today's legislators promoting a ban on small
handguns for poor people bear no animus towards expensive
skeet shotguns, but the British experience confirms that
taking a mediocre handgun away from a poor person does, in
the long run, endanger the ownership of $1,300 sporting
Benjamin Franklin's advice to his fellow revolutionary
Patriots that "[w]e must all hang together, or we shall all
hang separately" is well understood by mainstream exercisers
of First Amendment rights. Eminently respectable entities
like the American Library Association or the Washington
Post do not hesitate to file amicus briefs in cases
involving non-mainstream defendants like Soldier of
Fortune or Larry Flynt. This same "all hang together"
advice transcends civil liberties boundaries. First
Amendment advocates such as the ACLU, Second Amendment
advocates such as the NRA, and Fourth Amendment advocates
such as the NACDL, are needed to defend the full scope of
their particular rights. Those who defend rights become
stronger still when they defend the rights of each other.
Twenty years ago, the lobbyist from the American Civil
Liberties Union and the lobbyist from Gun Owners of America
were never seen making joint visits to members of Congress.
Perhaps the most important positive development for civil
liberties in the 1990s was the forceful emergence of the
"Leave Us Alone Coalition"--in which Christian
home-schoolers and hemp activist hippies began to find
common ground in their common desire to limit federal
control of families and schools. In the same vein, groups
like the Eagle Forum and Quaker social action groups worked
together against wiretapping and the militarization of
federal law enforcement.
Almost every time
the British government has demanded more power, the
great mass of British gun owners have placidly accepted
the government's action without protest. The 1996-97
push for handgun confiscation saw the first
significant display of mass gun-owner activism in many
years, with tens of thousands of law-abiding gun owners
and supporters rallying at demonstrations, and letter
after letter to M.P.s. It was the biggest and most
powerful display of political activism by British gun
rights advocates in the twentieth century. If the gun
owners had rallied so effectively in 1967, or in 1920,
they would not be on the verge of extinction today. If
they can sustain the present level of political activism
into the next century, they will at least have a chance
politics of British gun owners in most of the twentieth
century are a failure. The consequence of the "reasonable"
approach of the gun owners has not been a reasonable
treatment by the British government. Instead, the government
has pressed down restriction after restriction upon the
British people, and as every restriction fails to halt the
rising tide of crime, the British government invents still
more "reasonable" gun controls to distract the public from
the government's inept efforts at crime control.
armed crime grows worse and worse, despite nearly a century
of severe firearms controls, the British government expends
more and more energy "cracking down" on the rights of the
law-abiding British people. The undermining of the right to
arms has paralleled the destruction of many other common law
rights, including the grand jury right, freedom of the press
from prior restraints, the civil jury, freedom from
warrantless searches, the right to confront one's accusers,
and the right against self-incrimination. People who want to
argue that gun rights can be destroyed while other rights
prosper must find some other country to use as an example.
United States' gun control lobbies and their intellectual
supporters brim with praise for Britain's "sensible" gun
laws. In response, are citizens of the United States who
cherish Second Amendment rights necessarily wrong for being
reluctant to take any more steps down the slippery slope?
Should those United States citizens who cherish other parts
of the Bill of Rights look forward to their civil liberty
standards becoming more like Britain's?
- TURN TO PART 11 -