Thursday, March 28, 2013

"The Right to Bear Arms is a Freedom Too Far" debate at Sadler's Well Theatre, 27th March 2013

I guess it depends which side of the Atlantic you're on.  In the US gun control is a hot button issue; a freedom sown into the very fabric of the state. Gun ownership is mainstream culture; led by the NRA, an immensely powerful organisation that wielding formidable political power. If you're a politician that wants to tackle the gun lobby, you're going to have to consider the negative consequences to your political future.  The flipside of this enthusiasm is the occasional pile of corpses shot to pieces by deranged gunmen.  Recent events have made this debate is about as serious as it gets: one side seeing a uniquely American cultural institution under assault and the other terrified of the frequent, random atrocities that occur whenever a lunatic with a gun collection snaps.

But here in the UK we couldn't really give a toss.  A series of gun control Acts in 1903, 1920, 1937, 1968 and 1997 has resulted in the UK having one of the lowest rate of homicide by gun in the world.    There's no detectable pro-gun lobby in the UK and any politician seriously proposing to relax laws on gun control would either be trying to sabotage their election prospects or have gone utterly insane.  As it stands, the vast majority of British citizens will never fire a gun in their life and have little desire to.

With this divide in mind, last night's debate was inevitably a little neutered.  The motion on debate was "The Right to Bear Arms is a Freedom Too Far".  Author and broadcaster Will Self was arguing for the motion and author and columnist Peter Hitchens was arguing against.  Appearing by video-link was Professor Amitai Etzioni, sociologist and Professor of International Affairs at The George Washington University and Stephen Halbrook, Attorney at Law, who has argued against gun control in front of the US Supreme Court.

Both Will Self and Peter Hitchens were at pains to try and keep the debate as unemotive as possible, both of their arguments arising from "hard philosophy".  Will Self's argument explored and attempted to demolish both the logic underpinning the 2nd Amendment of the US constitution and the common arguments of the gun lobby.  He dismissed the need for a citizen to resist oppression, their need to defend themselves and the need to formulate a militia for defensive purposes.  Self argued that the right to own a gun was a relatively unimportant freedom, and criticised worship of the constitution as a kind of holy document.  I thought he got a little bogged down in a convoluted chain of logic that involves gun owners needing to be part of a regulated militia.   This, he argues would necessitate the dismantling of a country's armed forces and the cessation of any offensive foreign military action.   

I have to be honest, I didn't completely follow this argument, perhaps because he didn't get enough time to explain himself fully.  The strongest point he made for me was in his closing statement, he concisely and convincingly explained that the US gun lobby enshrines violence, and that supporting gun control legislation demonstrates an ambition to end violence in society.

Peter Hitchens argued for gun control from a libertarian standpoint, explaining that he had no personal stake in argument, had no desire to own a firearm himself indeed, his own opposition to gun control appears reluctant, arising from his desire to see a government that treats its citizens like responsible adults.  It's a good point but a little hypocritical considering I've seen him argue (much more passionately) in favour of strict controls on drug use.

It's when he touches on more traditional pro-gun arguments that things unravel a little.  There's an irresistible gravitational pull in the gun control argument to start making analogies that don't really work.  The classic example is to point out that, yes - guns kill lots of people, but cars kill far more and we don't talk about banning them.  I'm no fan of cars, but it's pretty damn obvious that the positive aspects of citizens owning cars outweighs the deaths caused. 

The other two debaters, Professor Etzioni and Stephen Halbrook were respectively pro and anti gun control.  But, frankly the audio stream wasn't great and I couldn't understand a lot of what they said.  Besides, they were given so little time to speak that it was hard to get anything of substance out of them.  This lack of time was a problem throughout, anybody beginning to formulate a complex argument was interrupted by the chair.

Rather disappointingly the event was exactly an hour long with no question of it over-running (which, for £15 a ticket felt like a bit of a rip off).  I'm not sure why the timing had to be so strict; it's not like this is live TV - surely one of the benefits of streaming to the internet is that you're not beholden to anyone else's scheduling?  The speed with which things flew past meant that there was time for only two or three questions from the audience, all of which were truncated and dealt with fairly shallowly.  It seems a bit rude to people that have paid a decent amount to be here to tell them that they only have time to consider one part of their question.

As a consequence of the format this was a bloodless, sterile and lightweight affair - while I'm sure Self and Hitchens both care about this issue deeply, there was precious little passion evident on stage.  The two panellists appearing via the internet from the US did seemed to speak with real emotion, but they didn't get to speak for long and much of what they said was incomprehensible due to audio distortion.

As I walked into the theatre I was asked whether I supported gun control or not.  I honestly didn't know.  It's a complex argument with no clear ideological underpinning.  I partially agreed with the philosophical arguments from both sides; that gun ownership inculcates violence within society, and also that a government should trust and respect their citizenry to behave responsibly.  But from Britain it's easy to paddle in these waters; these arguments  feel academic.  But if I was faced with a heap of corpses I suspect the philosophical manoeuvring on display tonight would seem a bit inconsequential.

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