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18 February 1997

Debate: Will Gun Control Make Society Safer?

Since the Dunblane tragedy almost a year ago, when Thomas Hamilton murdered 15 schoolchildren and their teacher, gun control has been one of the 'hot' topics in British politics. Fenno Outen, editor of the student magazine 'Cub' attended a debate on the rights and wrongs of gun control last week. He outlines what he thought of the discussion for LM Online

On Thursday 13th February the debate 'Will gun control make society safer?' took place in the prestigious surroundings of Church House, Westminster. Ann Pearston from the Snowdrop Appeal - set up after the Dunblane tragedy to campaign for gun control - and Ian Taylor, Professor of Sociology at Salford University, spoke for the motion while Dr Frank Furedi, author of the forthcoming book 'The Culture of Fear', and Michael Yardley, a spokesman for the Sportsman's Association, spoke against.

Ian Taylor spoke first and drew the lines of battle explicitly. Criticising the idea that concern over guns was another moral panic, he asserted that the question could not be resolved with statistics, but required instead a 'moral and political dialogue'. Illustrating his points with newspaper pictures of hooded men at gun clubs, he went on to lambast the government sponsored Cullen report which examined the issue of gun control and ownership on the wake of Dunblane. This, he claimed, made too much of the distinction between respectable gun owners and the criminal or psychologically disturbed, while remaining silent on today's crisis of 'reactionary' masculinity and the free market in guns.

Michael Yardley, unsurprisingly, disagreed. Taylor, he claimed, had introduced a confusion between legally and illegally held guns when making the link with crime. Shooters were being made into 'a convenient scapegoat' in the pre-election fervour. Moreover, the firearms bill currently being hastened through Parliament would destroy a sport, cost jobs and money and would not work. Going on to make a perceptive point about the way safety is used these days as an excuse for draconian legislation, he claimed he would prefer to suffer some risk to maintain 'character and freedom'. At the same time however, he seemed to accept many of the premises of the current debate: gun culture and violent videos were a problem and there was a need for a national firearms control board.

Ann Pearston gave an emotional introduction. She argued simply that if 'Thomas Hamilton had not had legally held guns, those children would still be alive today'. Her own children would have been at the school that day but for the fortunate fact her family had moved house. She continued 'before you can have quality of life you have to have life' and that 'gun control does make society safer'. On gun clubs, she suggested that without the practice that these afforded Thomas Hamilton, his victims would have stood a better chance. Shooting, she had concluded, was 'obsessive - even addictive'.

Frank Furedi began his introduction by criticising the moral terms of the debate; instead of rational discussion, we have the equivalent of old style religious rhetoric. The celebration of the universal horror at Thomas Hamilton's crime was, he said, 'the biggest tragedy of all what kind of country has Britain become' he asked, 'if it needs events like Dunblane to unite people?'. Criticising the way in which authority and expertise was conferred on victims such as the Dunblane parents, he drew parallels with the way politicians had lined up behind Frances Lawrence - whose husband was stabbed to death - and the parents of Leah Betts - who died in an ecstasy-related incident - and emphasised the irrationality of this approach. Forcing home his point, he declared himself to be 'old-fashioned' on the question of gun ownership. It was, in his opinion, one of our oldest democratic rights. Throughout history the rise of public safety discussions was a signal to beware of attacks on our civil liberties. Reminding the audience of the demonisation of football fans in the past, he suggested that rather than fear balaclava-wearing gun owners, 'it's the people demanding controls [we] should fear.'

The discussion period was passionate and forthright. Ann Pearston was asked if she had considered the lives saved by gun owners each year, while others objected to her caricature of gun owners as disturbed paedophiles. A question directed to Ian Taylor demanded to know how he could square universal rights with his implication that the distinction between the sane/responsible and insane/criminal was unclear. The best point from the floor however concerned the problem of demands for action based on emotion. The speaker suggested that if he made a point against Western intervention in Iraq on the basis of its effect on children (they are dying by the thousand) he would not have an automatic case. On the contrary, he would have to win an argument. Why, he asked, should the Snowdrop Appeal be exempted from this? Clearly on the losing side of the argument on this occasion, Ann Pearston claimed Frank Furedi's comments to have been those of someone 'in the university environment', without her direct experience of events. Ian Taylor meanwhile decried what he saw as Dr Furedi's endorsement of 'an anything goes, freemarket free-for-all'. On the other side of the fence, sensing an argument well won, Michael Yardley felt bold enough to opine that the person in history most in favour of gun control was a certain Adolf Hitler.

Overall, the debate was won by Furedi and Yardley with rational, well-argued points. However, judging by the tenor of discussion outside that debating chamber - in Parliament and the media - rationality and logic are unlikely to win the day this time.

The debate was one in a series organised by The Point Is To Change It, LM's manifesto for a 'world fit for people'.

The next debate addresses Constitutional reform and the monarchy: fact, fiction or farce?. It is on Wednesday 26 February 1997 at Church House, Great Smith Street, London SW1 at 19:30. The speakers include Dr David Starkey a constitutional historian from the LSE, Andrew Adonis from the Observer newspaper, Professor Stephen Haseler chair of the constitutional reform organisation Republic and James Heartfield from LM magazine. Tickets cost 5.00 (waged) and 3.50 (unwaged).
Further details available from lm@informinc.co.uk

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