Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Brain-teasers and guns

I promised you the answers to my two earlier brain teasers, and you shall have them. Of course I was being unfair in those questions for two reasons; firstly the descriptions (and in one case the accompanying picture), though true enough, were deliberately misleading, and secondly because I was asking you in effect to read my mind and tell me what cities I was thinking of. There was method in my madness, however.

Question 1] deliberately described a city that could easily be modern-day Glasgow and its rivalry between the soccer teams of Glasgow Celtic with its green strip and traditionally Roman Catholic fans (the Bhoys), and Glasgow Rangers with its blue strip and traditionally Protestant, Royalist fans (the Huns). But that wasn’t the city I was actually describing. I was describing Byzantium or Constantinople (modern Istanbul) in the time of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian. The two teams – the Greens and the Blues – were rivals in the chariot races. Justinian himself supported the Blues, and the religious split was between Orthodox and Monophysite Christians. This is where a little unfairness comes in, because the young rowdies who supported both teams used to prowl the city dressed as Huns, rather than simply one set of fans. Moreover historians have lately begun to challenge the idea that the supporters of each team could fairly be identified with a discrete Christian movement. But it shows that I was prepared to bowl you a doosra (to bring a third sport into it).

Question 2] deliberately drew you towards Beijing, probably the most memorable encounter in recent years between civilians and tanks. But people who answered me privately had probably sussed that I was trying to pull your leg. Answers of Dublin, Glasgow, Lisbon, Madrid, Vienna, Budapest, Prague, and Moscow were given, each with some justification, although I did tell correspondents to eliminate from their thinking any occasions where the tanks had been used to quell a general uprising, or where people had woken up one day to find foreign tanks on their streets to bring about a regime change.

The city I was thinking of was, on this occasion, Glasgow. I was thinking in particular of 1919 when, fearing a “Bolshevik Revolution”, the British government sent ten thousand mainly English troops, armed with machine guns and bringing a howitzer and tanks with them, into Glasgow to confront workers who were striking for shorter hours. They used English troops fearing that Scottish soldiers would side with the strikers.

Tanks marshaled for use in Glasgow, 1919

That event had been on my mind lately as several threads of thought came together. I have been reading right-wing blogs – not extremist as such, but rather pro-capitalist writing and pages in support of American notions of freedom – because I felt it was fair to be informed by people with views opposite to my own. I looked for, and found, a handful where the bloggers were prepared to advance arguments which were at least coherent even if they were highly arguable.

There was one very interesting blog where the point was made that the American revolution in the 1770s was unlike any other in history. In the others (the writer was thinking of France and Russia especially) the revolutionaries had nothing to lose; in the American Revolution, he argued, the revolutionaries had everything to lose. The signatories to the Declaration of Independence were all men of substance – landowners, prosperous farmers, lawyers – all men who would lose much more than their lives if their revolution failed. Thus the qualities of the freedom won by them were special, unique, the true freedom to which humankind should aspire.

And the proof of this freedom was gun ownership.

That was the point at which I rolled my eyes. He just had to mention guns!

Well, the controversy about gun ownership and its relevance or lack of it to freedom must be familiar to everyone by now. There is little need to state the debating points either way again. However, the incidents in Glasgow in 1919 have prompted me to consider a couple of aspects regarding the lack of gun ownership in the UK, and to write about the subject, mainly for the benefit of my American readers – I do have a few.

I think the starting point for this should be in the late 18th century, because it was at that time that there was a significantly different set of social circumstances on either side of the Atlantic. In effect the laws were similar, inasmuch as a right to bear arms was assumed*, but on the American continent ownership of arms was widespread whilst in the United Kingdom it was uncommon. That is actually a very important historical fact to remember.

Having established that, subsequent laws in the UK which restricted ownership of firearms did not necessarily have a marked social effect – few quiescent citizens would have felt any restriction on their freedom, no matter to what degree they perceived themselves as being free or otherwise. As I said, I am only going to focus on two Acts of Parliament, both of which I would say were highly reactive to contemporaneous events.

Firstly there was the Vagrancy Act of 1824. We’re talking about the period immediately after the Napoleonic Wars. All the weaponry used in the conflict with France were, strictly speaking, the property of the government, as the United Kingdom had if not a standing army then at least an assumption of a single army under the Crown, subject to parliamentary control. However retaining control of the materiel of that army after regiments were disbanded would have been a problem, and Parliament reacted to the situation of unemployed soldiery wandering around as armed vagrants by allowing the arrest of “any person with any gun, pistol, hanger, cutlass, bludgeon or other offensive weapon… with intent to commit a felonious act.” There followed several acts specific to poaching, which seems very much in keeping with Britain’s quondam class system and the law’s concern to protect “property”. It is significant that although the power of arrest seems to be there in the Vagrancy Act, the actual restriction on arms is not, and that leads me to wonder firstly whether there was as much of a social problem as the legislators feared, or secondly whether it was something else they feared and sought to prevent.

There must have been people alive who could remember the revolutionary period in France, from 1789 to 1799, and certainly more people could remember how that had degenerated into the dictatorship of Napoleon. 1812 saw the weavers’ strike in Scotland (the “Radical War”); 1819 saw the Peterloo Massacre; 1820 saw a call for a general strike in Scotland (I'll let you google these and choose your own sources of information). Nowhere is it recorded that the working people involved in these events were armed**, but the gentry in Parliament must nevertheless have been quaking.

The second piece of legislation I want to mention is the 1920 Firearms Act. The stated intention of the government in passing this Act was to comply with the Paris Arms Convention and to control the overseas arms trade. However once again the country was full of demobilized soldiers, and the possibility was feared that they had access to illicitly obtained arms; moreover there had been the Éirí Amach na Casca in Ireland (the “Easter Rising”) along with other shootings of police etc., a revolution in Russia, and the unrest in Glasgow’s George Square as I mentioned above. Again I think that the reason for this legislation was fear not of guns but of the disadvantaged working people of the United Kingdom.

Times change. Firearm legislation in the UK has been consolidated, amended, redrafted, sometimes in reaction to events such as the Northern Ireland “Troubles”, and sometimes to individual acts of mayhem such as the Hungerford or Dunblane Massacres, but basically many generations have grown up in the UK accepting that owning a gun must be an exception rather than a rule.

So basically the population of the UK must feel oppressed, must long for the liberation that only Americanisation can bring, must long for the freedom to go down to the local store and tool up with a 45, a 9 mil, or a Glock, yes? Well… no…

What people seem to feel is freedom, specifically the freedom to walk down the streets in the knowledge that they are very, very unlikely to have a gun shoved in their faces.

And by this circumbendibus I arrive at this philosophical point. Does the word “freedom” belong to one group of people to define? Does it mean the freedom to or the freedom from? Or both? Or even neither? And most importantly – wherever you are – has somebody else appropriated that word?


* Based on a law from 1181 during the Reign of King Henry II (England). It is often assumed, not without good reason, that the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution of the United States had the purpose of ensuring that there were sufficient guns in private hands to facilitate the formation of militias in the event of war, and that the subsequent assumption of the “right” to bear arms has been a mis-assumption which has become enshrined in legal textualism. The more recent (since the late 19th century) reliance on the purposive theory in legal matters in the USA, notwithstanding statutory derogation, did not however convince the US Supreme Court in 2008 and 2010 (District of Columbia v Heller and McDonald v Chicago), and the private ownership of arms in the US as a perceived right has been strengthened thereby. However the Supreme Court also stated that its ruling was not to be taken as an indication that all firearm restrictions are unconstitutional. The argument that there was a purposive element in the minds of those jurists who drafted the 2nd Amendment will not go away.

The effect of the 1181 law, by the way, no longer pertains in the UK, because of the concept of the Sovereignty of Parliament, by which Parliament may repeal or amend earlier legislation, with no enshrined exceptions within a codified constitution. Thus UK legislation is never like the “Laws of the Medes and the Persians”, whereas that accusation could be leveled at the Constitution of the USA, despite its utopian conception.

** The striking weavers of 1812 had intended to seize weapons from the Carron Company Ironworks.


  1. Interesting how the controversy of ownership splits in two directions and defines the word "freedom" on a deeper, culture-specific level. It makes me wonder, if citizens of the UK have come to peaceful terms with their gun restrictions, does that signify a slight mistake with US policy? I quite honestly wouldn't know, and please correct me if I'm wrong, but I don't think that the UK has particularly low rates of violent crime, but it is something that is decreasing. But personally, I do not believe that the simple availability to own a gun has much affect on violent crime, concerning how often if occurs or not. Least, that's not what archival evidence or psychological research tells me. I do know that a violent stimulus (such as being in possession of a gun somewhere inside one's house) can fuel aggressive behavior. And being quite honest, history was never my thing but psychology is. (Although the two are highly related and history is still fascinating.) I do know from history, as well as psychology, that individualistic societies tend to have a more open/glorified view of violence, particularly as a means to an end, compared to collectivist societies. But how can one's government make the shift from individualism to collectivism? I honestly don't think such a culture shock is possible..
    But before I start ranting, thank you for sharing this with me. It was extremely informative and helpful.

    1. I deliberately tried to avoid (successfully, I hope) expressing and conclusion about which culture was 'better'. My sole aim was to point out the differences and cite some possible historical stepping stones towards those differences. I have to agree with your point about the availability to own a gun and violent crime - 'violence' covers a very wide spectrum of behaviours after all.

      You ask "how can one's government make the shift from individualism to collectivism?" It can't, because the existence of a 'government' means that power (and therefore wealth) is always concentrated. A shift towards collectivism - or, as I prefer to put it, towards a community-based society, one where communal and societal values prevail - can only come from below. It can only be a movement something like the 'Arab Spring' or the 1936 revolution in Catalonia. But here we open a much wider debate...

      Thank you for your comment - sorry it took so long to get to it.