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Britain’s Gun-Control Folly

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A former Texas police officer is causing a stir in jolly Old England. After leaving his job in Garland, Texas, and moving with his British wife and their three children to Reading, Ben Johnson took a job as a British bobby — and had the audacity to suggest that he might want to carry a gun while on the job.

“We should value the lives of police officers enough to properly equip them and train them to do their job,” Garland told the Washington Post, “even if that means getting rid of some old-fashioned notions.”

The “old-fashioned” notion Johnson is talking about is the very intense — and irrational — belief held by virtually all British people that guns are bad — period. According to the Post story, “Johnson’s case has caused a media furor [in England], partly because an American — a Texan no less — is claiming he feels less safe as a police officer in Britain than he did on the beat in the United States, which is routinely portrayed here as a gun-drunk Wild West.”

The British love their illusions about guns and crime in America, much as American gun-control advocates have their own — and parallel — illusions about guns and crime in Great Britain. From the opposite side of the pond comes the “routine portrayal” of America as a “gun-drunk Wild West.” Translation: Here in the United States we’re all less safe because citizens are allowed to own guns. By comparison, Britain is a paragon of safety and virtue because people there cannot own guns. Or so we’re constantly told.

Then along comes this American (A Texan no less!) claiming that as a police officer he wants to be armed so that he can better do his job of protecting himself — and the public — from dangerous criminals. And he has already had a personal experience of that nature. “He said he recently found himself in the same room with a man wanted for attempted murder and he could easily have taken the suspect by surprise and apprehended him. But, Johnson said, because the man was believed to be armed, he was ordered not to approach him. The suspect walked away and was arrested by armed officers two days later.” Fortunately, this suspect is not believed to have harmed anyone in the interval.

Johnson’s desire to be armed is a view held by about 20 percent of police officers in the United Kingdom, according to a nationwide survey of officers in 2003. Right now about 6,000 of the approximately 142,000 policemen in the country are armed. A spokesman for the Police Federation, which represents all police officers, said the union wants to double that number. And even the Home Office minister, who oversees police affairs, told the BBC that he believed more armed officers were needed.

Two police officers have been killed with firearms and two more were stabbed to death in Britain in the last five years. During that same period, 44 officers received nonfatal firearms wounds. The most recent killing of a police officer occurred in November — a mother of three who was responding to an alarm in Bradford.

Those opposed to arming more officers present a strange counterargument. As the Post put it, “Opponents suggest it would just lead to more gun crime.” How’s that? “Petty criminals might arm themselves in response.” This view is particularly ridiculous when we consider that the UK’s leftist government banned virtually all private firearms ownership and all handgun ownership in 1997 amidst great fanfare about “making Britain safer.” Since then, crime has skyrocketed. So guns were outlawed to fight crime, and now not even police should have guns lest the increasingly emboldened criminal element get upset about it. That’s some twisted logic.

The Washington Post couldn’t help but get some of its own digs in on the story, even if it meant sugar-coating some uncomfortable truths. The Post rightly reported that “Britain has some of the world’s toughest gun-control laws,” but “violent crime, while increasing, is still far less common than in the United States,” it claims.

In response, allow me to quote at length from “Gun Control in England: The Tarnished Gold Standard,” written by historian Joyce Lee Malcolm and published in the fall 2004 issue of Journal on Firearms & Public Policy:

[Between 1997 and 2003] crimes with [banned firearms] have more than doubled…. In 2002, for the fourth consecutive year, gun crime in England and Wales rose — by 35 percent for all firearms, and by a whopping 46 percent for the banned handguns. Nearly 10,000 firearms offenses were committed…. Clearly since the ban criminals have not found it difficult to get guns and the balance has not shifted in the interest of public safety….

In the four years from 1997 to 2001 the rate of violent crime more than doubled. The UK murder rate for 2002 was the highest for a century….

A recent study of all the countries of western Europe has found that in 2001 Britain had the worst record for killings, violence and burglary, and its citizens had one of the highest risks in the industrialized world of becoming victims of crime….

And here’s the icing on the cake: “[A] United Nations study of eighteen industrialized countries, including the United States, published in 2002 … found England and Wales at the top of the Western world’s crime league, with the worst record for ‘very serious’ offenses.” [Emphasis added]

And all this while crime in the United States, including violent crime, has been steadily falling. The “Wild West” seems to be 3,000 miles to our east.

“Nevertheless,” observed Derek Phillips, legislative advisor for the UK’s Office of Legislative Affairs, “‘tough’ legislative regulation, so evidently ineffective in achieving the purpose claimed for it, continues as a policy.” The UK’s ban on private firearms ownership has left the people there completely defenseless in the wake of rising crime. A young American turned British bobby has shown the courage to suggest that more guns might be the answer, but rather than take an honest and rational look at the evidence, the British would rather hide behind an irrational hatred for firearms and an even more irrational contempt for American sensibility on this issue. Guns in the hands of police officers — and private citizens — make everyone safer. Cowering from the criminal element and denouncing “gun drunk” Americans won’t change that simple fact.

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    Scott McPherson is policy adviser at The Future of Freedom Foundation. An advocate of the Free State Project, he lives in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.