There are many reasons to hesitate before writing a post on American gun control: other people’s tragedy should not be lightly used as the basis for spouting opinions, I am not American and I am not an expert on gun control. I make the following suggestion humbly, simply to see if anyone else thinks it has merit.
Quite apart from the core questions of whether it is guns that are to blame for tragedies like Newtown, and whether gun control would actually work (to which my answers to both are ‘to some extent, yes, and that’s enough’), the gun control debate is overlaid with a deeper political/cultural divide. Gun enthusiasts are much more likely than the general populace to be libertarians of one kind of another, sceptical of the state’s capacity to defend them and harbouring an instinctive suspicion of government and its motives.
As far as I can see, the debate in America seems to centre on the possibility of outlawing assault weapons and /or tightening the process of vetting. But regulation in either area imposed on a reluctant populace by a flat-footed state could easily fail or generate perverse outcomes.
New forms of lethal weapons which somehow circumvent the details of an assault ban will emerge leading the Government – just like on drugs policy in the UK – to keep changing the rules to catch up. And more stringent state regulation – if it is not easily to be circumvented - is not only expensive and cumbersome but is likely to throw up anomalous cases which discredit the process. Given the Americans' support for the robust self defence, one case of someone being shot in their home while waiting for their gun application to be processed could be enough to throw the tide of public opinion back towards the gun lobby.
In view of this my idea is to have a system of regulation based primarily not on the state but on other citizens.
In essence, the new system would require anyone owning or purchasing a gun to provide references from three other citizens, at least one of whom should not be a gun owner themselves. The referees would in turn be required to sign on the basis that they were satisfied that certain limited but essential conditions had been met by the person they were endorsing: namely, that the person is of sound mind, they have the gun for genuine reasons of security or sport and that the person has measures in place to ensure that no unauthorised person is able to access the gun.
Critical to the system is that the referees, by signing, accept liability in the form of being subject to charges of negligence or of assisting in an offence if the gun holder they endorse uses the gun to break the law, and if it is subsequently shown that the referees had good reason for suspecting or knowing that there was a risk of the gun holder using the gun illegally.
The point of this system is that it puts the onus on the gun holder not to convince the state but to convince their fellow citizens. If they are unable to do this the fault lies with them and their friends and associates not with the state.
It might be that initially such a system would be abused, with people (particularly, gun shop owners) setting themselves up as professional paid referees. One way to avoid this would be to set a maximum of, say, five on the number of people any one person could endorse, but anyway if the referees do the job of checking, that’s fine and if they don’t sooner or later one of them will find themselves facing public opprobrium and a prison sentence or heavy fine for culpability in a gun owner’s misdemeanour.
Of course, such a system would make it harder for friendless loners to get guns but this is surely a plus point!
We shouldn’t underestimate how far our societies have pulled apart. Yet there is hope for renewal, says Anthony Painter. The question is not whether we come together – but how.