Nigel Farage is frequently described as a "populist" and "man of the people" (although seemingly only by his critics), but last week he did something uncharacteristically un-populist.
"I think proper gun licensing is something we've done in this country responsibly and well for a long time. Kneejerk legislation that Blair brought in meant that the British Olympic pistol team have to go to France to even practice was just crackers. If you criminalise handguns, then only the criminals carry the guns. Since Blair brought that law in, gun crime doubled in the next five years in this country,"
Gun legislation is always a topic that has confused me. Britons seem to be quite libertarian when it comes to things like tobacco, alcohol, or even the legalisation of drugs (a perspective that is not only becoming more popular, but also working its way into mainstream politics). Yet when we talk about our attitude towards guns, there's a sense of pride in our prohibitionist system, even a sense of smugness when compared to our American cousins.
I was looking for some sort of clarification when Gaz Corfield, who in his own words is "not a UKIP supporter...[but] a sub-editor whose specialist topic happens to be firearms", offered to "help with background, law, and context".
"In brief, they are 'prohibited' but there are a very small number of exemptions," Gaz told me, via email. "I say 'prohibited' in inverted commas because people with the appropriate authority on their firearm certificate can legally acquire otherwise prohibited handguns." That law doesn't include Northern Ireland, who have the sort of firearms licensing system Farage is campaigning for.
So, it seems that firearms are a lot less totally prohibited than most people think, or even than the law intended. Does that prove that the current firearms legislation is "kneejerk"?
The "kneejerk legislation" Farage refers to is the prohibition of handguns that followed the Dunblane Massacre in 1996, in which a gunman entered a school and killed seventeen people. I was less than a year old at the time, and since I'm obviously unable to remember it, I had to do some research. (Whether that makes me 'too young' to talk on this topic is up to you to decide.)
Seemingly, there were several articles in newspapers emphasising 'gun culture'[*] and one even created a petition that gained almost 750,000 signatures. Campaign groups with names like 'Gun Control Network' and 'Dunblane Against Guns' were springing up to feed the soundbites.
The government commissioned a report from Lord Cullen - imaginatively named the Cullen Report - which recommended that the Firearms Acts that were still in force at the time be reformed, including that:
- "every holder of a firearm certificate should be required to be a member of at least one approved club";
- "consideration should be given to...disablement [of guns], while they are not in use, by the removal of the slide assembly/cylinder, which is to be kept securely on the premises of an approved club";
- "reform of the scope for appeal against decisions of the chief officer of police" (who at the time was responsible for approving firearms licences);
- "each club should appoint a person to act as a liaison officer with the police".
That's just a selection of those 1996 proposals. A lot of red tape, sure, but that's a proper licensing system, and presumably what Farage is suggesting (unless he really is as bonkers as his harshest critics think he is). Even directly after the horror of Dunblane, Lord Cullen said that those reforms were preferable to total firearm prohibition.
I mean, imagine if you had a national scandal that forced the government to appoint a Lord (for the sake of this example, let's call him Lord Justice Leveson) to publish a report. While that inquiry was underway, unelected, unrepresentative campaign groups full of hacked off people provided soundbites to fuel the media furore that resulted. Then, when the report finally came out, the government largely decided to go and do their own thing anyway...
Why, then, did a firearms ban come into law? Gaz again:
"The massacre happened in 1996. 1997 was an election year, and after 17 years of Conservative government it was inevitable they were going to lose. John Major's dying government banned all handguns except .22 pistols in the hope of getting some votes. They failed. Tony Blair's incoming Labour government banned .22 pistols as well - it was one of his very first acts in government, born from spite."
All of these things tend towards the conclusion that it was "kneejerk legislation" (that's the last time I'll use that phrase, I promise). That doesn't make Nigel Farage the bastion of common sense, though. I do have some issues with what he goes on to claim: "Since Blair brought that law in, gun crime doubled in the next five years in this country."
"The number of crimes involving guns in England and Wales rose heavily during the late 1990s to peak at 24,094 offenses in 2003/04," reports CNN. But just because his facts are certifiable doesn't make the ideology behind it correct. It only makes sense to me that, as you bring a new law in, the figures for whatever has just become illegal are going to go up. It's also worth noting his choice of time period, since handgun crime fell approximately 44% after those first five years (although it's been revealed that crime statistics aren't all that reliable anyway).
A legalised, thoroughly licensed system is, on balance, something I support - in an ideal world where the police aren't being cut and can be proved to be good at doing their jobs (something both the Duggan and Plebgate affairs, as well as the aforementioned statistics fiddling and the failure of the police in the original Dunblane incident, calls into serious question).
Does this mean I support UKIP and Nigel Farage? No. Gaz expresses his dissatisfaction:
"It's bad for Farage to have said it as a throwaway comment without any substantiation or attempt at a proper argument. Coming at the end of a week where he's been a political punching bag over his denial of having anything to do with the 2010 UKIP manifesto, all he's managed is to get everyone using the handgun issue as a stick to bash UKIP with - and so uniting politicians and newspapers of all political persuasions in saying 'unbanning pistols is a bad thing, look at this idiotic oaf Farage'."
I have to agree. The same seems to go for most NewKIP (as Tim Montgomerie calls it) policies. While they may be a party with multiple policies, some of which are now commendable, that one issue of EU departure is always the thing that they will discuss the most and be the reason most people vote for them, and as a result, any other aims become sidelined.
Unless, of course, they rename themselves the United Kingdom Independence Firearms Licensing Nuclear Power Front Line Police Social Housing Grammar School Full Life Sentences Party, or UKIFLNPFLPSHGSFLSP. I can't wait to see Huw Edwards pronounce that one on the BBC News at Ten.
* Disclaimer: I only use the Independent as evidence of alarmism because its news archives are the easiest and most efficient to search online, not because it was overly alarmist or because of the views it holds as a newspaper.
A huge thanks to Gaz for providing invaluable help with that background, law, and context. He doesn't seem to be alone in his views: polls on major UK news websites seem to say that there is a significant minority who also believe in such a licensing system (click here for the Telegraph's and here for the Mail's).
Finally, an apology that this usual Tuesday blog post hasn't appeared until Friday - entirely my fault. Normal service shall be resumed next week.