It doesn’t happen in a day!
It may surprise you to know that the Second Amendment has its roots in English law. The 1688 Bill of Rights was meant to rectify James IIs’ prohibition on the carrying of arms by Protestants and stated
“That the Subjects which are Protestants may have Arms for their Defence suitable to their Conditions and as allowed by Law” http://www.legislation.gov.uk/aep/WillandMarSess2/1/2/introduction
In his 1766 work “Commentaries on the Laws of England”, Sir William Blackstone wrote:
“The fifth and last auxiliary right of the subject, that I shall at present mention, is that of having arms for their defence, suitable to their condition and degree, and such as are allowed by law. Which is also declared by the same statute I W. & M. st.2. c.2. and is indeed a public allowance, under due restrictions, of the natural right of resistance and self-preservation, when the sanctions of society and laws are found insufficient to restrain the violence of oppression.”
A statement which encapsulates — in the language of the 18th Century -the justification so frequently offered by pro-gun lobbies today in the US.
Actually, the earliest piece of gun control legislation I can find was a ban imposed by Elizabeth I in 1594 on the carrying of wheel lock pistols near royal palaces in England. It seems that some ten years prior, William I, Prince of Orange, had been assassinated with a wheel lock pistol. Unlike the more common matchlock, a wheel lock could be carried concealed upon the person. Elizabeth was concerned that Catholics in England might have a similar fate in mind for her.
Throughout the 17th and 18th Centuries, with the development of first the flintlock, then the percussion mechanisms, firearms became cheaper and more common. A wise traveller took care to carry one, as at this time the roads of Britain were plagued by highwaymen. The postilion who sat next the driver on the stage or mail coaches invariably carried a ‘blunderbuss’, a short-barrelled, heavy-calibre weapon usually loaded with buckshot, against such emergencies.
The first piece of real firearms legislation was the Vagrancy Act of 1824, which contained clauses allowing the arrest of “any person with any gun, pistol, hanger [dagger], cutlass, bludgeon or other offensive weapon … with intent to commit a felonious act”. It appears that veterans of the Napoleonic Wars had brought home a number of lethal souvenirs and, in the subsequent depression, were unable to find employment. So they took to roaming about in gangs, armed to the teeth and generally causing havoc.
The Gun Licence Act of 1870 was just a means of raising extra revenue. A licence could be purchased by anyone with the requisite funds -10 shillings -from a Post Office. It lasted for a year and permitted them to carry a gun outside their own home. You didn’t need a licence to buy one.
The 1903 Pistol Act placed restrictions on the sale of handguns, but not severe ones. The 1920 Firearms Act required anyone who wished to own a firearm to obtain a certificate and to ‘show good reason’ as to why they needed one. Self defence was still a valid reason for owning a firearm, and remained so until the Act of 1937, when the then Home Secretary decided that “firearms cannot be regarded as a suitable means of protection and may be a source of danger”. The 1968 Act required firearms to be kept locked up, in a place safe enough to satisfy a police Firearms Officer.
Our current stringent legislation came as a result of two distinct events.
On 19th August 1987, Michael Robert Ryan approached a woman and her children who were enjoying a picnic. He ordered the woman, at gunpoint, to put the children in the car. He then forced her into the bushes and emptied the magazine of his legally-owned Beretta 9mm pistol into her. He then drove to a petrol station and attempted to shoot the attendant with another legally-owned weapon, an M1 carbine. He then drove to the town of Hungerford, where he lived, and set his house on fire, after shooting his dog. Ryan proceeded to walk across Hungerford Common and into the town centre, shooting at people as he went. In total, he killed 16 people including a police officer before barricading himself in a local school — empty for the holidays — and finally shooting himself.
As a result of this, the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988 banned civilian ownership of automatic, semi-automatic and pump-action rifles and shotguns.
Almost ten years later, on 13th March 1996, Thomas Hamilton walked into the gymnasium of Dunblane Primary School. He was carrying four legally-held pistols and over 700 rounds of ammunition. In the gym were a class of 28 Year 1 (5–6 years old) children and three teachers. In the next three or four minutes, Hamilton shot and killed a teacher and 15 children and wounded another 16 people, one of whom was a child who died in the ambulance on the way to a hospital. He then shot himself.
This last event, and this alone, is the basis of the massively anti-gun attitude of the majority of British people. The campaigns and protests that followed this eventually led to not one, but two Firearms (Amendment) Acts in 1997, which had the effect of almost completely banning private ownership of any handgun.
Now this long tale does have a point (“Finally!” I hear you cry). The point is that this did not happen in a hurry. It happened bit by bit, over centuries, from the caution of a queen to the revulsion at the needless deaths of children four hundred years later. It took place in an old, small country, whose close-packed population had not been bothered by hostile natives since 1066, and whose large predators were rendered extinct almost before firearms were invented. It happened in a country where the relationship between people and government has evolved gradually over centuries.
Contrast this with the American experience. A vast country, much if it wild and roamed by large predators to this day. A nation born in rebellion, where distrust of those in power is part of the national identity. A people menaced from without by hostile natives, and from within by their own slaves (with slavery comes the ever-present threat of revolt). A population fragmented not only by distance, but by a generations-long tide of immigration unparalleled in the history of any other culture.
On the one hand, a wide-open frontier where the law was more absent than present, and where people were responsible for their now safety. On the other, the teeming cities where the ‘huddled masses’ from Europe continued to huddle. Afraid to make for the open spaces beyond, clinging to what they knew — their own communities, customs and language -and distrusting outsiders. I point no finger of blame, but simply note what happened. Why is an issue for wiser heads than mine.
So that is how it lies. In Britain, the ancient right of the free man to bear arms went from a basic freedom to a necessary evil, became a public danger and now is seen as an unloved relic of a violent past we have outgrown. But in America, a young country which trusts neither its own institutions nor the outside world, it remains for many the last redoubt, the final guarantee of freedom against foreign invasion, domestic subversion or government tyranny.
You can’t change that in a day, and if you push too hard, you will only stiffen resistance. A nation cannot, despite all boasts to the contrary, be built in a couple of centuries. Change will happen, but it takes time. Be patient.