Monday, August 29, 2005


I have upset a couple of people with a brief posting below in which I asked if relaxation of gun laws was a suitable response to the guinea pig farm story.

Neil Harding accused me of being a "gun nut",while Peter at the Apollo Project likewise assumed that I was in effect a card-carrying member of the NRA.

It's not that simple.

Firstly my background with firearms. This is essentially non-existent. I have never discharged any sort of weapon, be it pistol, rifle or air gun. About ten years ago a Chinese policeman gave me his (unloaded) pistol to hold - God knows why. I live in a rural area and therefore know a few people who have shotgun licences. But I can state with absolute conviction that I am not a gun nut. Quite the opposite, in fact. I have always had a fear and dislike of guns and would rather they didn't exist. But my mind is open.

I have libertarian convictions and have therefore heard all the arguments put forward for the right to bear arms. They are, I think, pretty good arguments and are all the more interesting for having been largely supressed in this country. But I have not been willing to step over the line into open support for this position.

Two recent stories pushed me a little closer to stepping over that line. First Simon Titley at the Liberal Dissenter posted a story about a Japanese acquaintance who was attacked on the tube. The woman was shocked at how nobody lifted a finger to help. Titley felt that in a civic-minded society witnesses would come forward to provide evidence or that the passengers might have banded together to overcome the attackers.

While I share his hopes, this clearly isn't happening in reality. Titley's feeling is, I infer, that this failure to act is due to a lack of a sense of civic duty among ordinary people. I think he's wrong.

I know that if I were in a situation where someone was being attacked in front of me I would not be able to intervene, being neither young nor large enough to do so with any hope of success. Even the youngest and strongest would have to ask themselves if the attacker was armed.

Could people team up to thwart the attackers? Who is to say that the first person to suggest such a move wouldn't get a knife in the guts for their trouble? Who wants to take that risk? What if there is no-one else?

The people on that tube train were making a rational decision in the circumstances. The reward for a successful intervention is a slightly better society, perhaps a small financial reward, perhaps a sense of heroism. The risk is death. Looked at this way, it is clear that few would accept the trade off. It appears to me that if you are attacked, you can only hope for mercy or the chance arrival of the police, because your fellow citizens cannot and will not help you.

The second shift if my thinking was brought about by the story of the Guinea Pig farm and its capitulation in the face of a concerted campaign of terrorism. But apart from outrage and hand wringing there have been no suggestions as to how to prevent this kind of thing in future. The terrorists concerned can attack and threated apparently unconcerned by significant risk of apprehension or meaningful punishment. The police cannot be everywhere. What else can we do except defend ourselves?

These then are the questions for anyone reading this post. Policing has failed consistently to prevent these kind of attacks. Does anyone believe that in a free country (ie without a policeman on every corner, every tube and bus, and in every isolated farm house) it is possible to stop this? How? Or do you believe that a certain level of murder and terrorism is inevitable? What should we do when the police aren't there?

From a coldly rational point of view we have to change the incentives faced by criminals, terrorists and the law-abiding citizen. I can't see how we can do that without the ability to defend ourselves, and for anyone who is not a strapping young man that means firearms.

But I'm open to persuasion.