Ban all handguns now. There's nothing to lose: Leading article

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The Independent Online
Death in Dunblane created an emergency that only a complete ban on the private ownership of handguns can begin to dissipate. Lord Cullen's inquiry served to extend the crisis - it may even have intensified it as, during the past weeks, from the back branches have dropped some odd fowl - shootists more wedded to their pistols than any notion of propriety or public safety, and Warren Hawksley MP. Yesterday Lord Cullen proposed a half-measure, out of a touching anxiety for the economic well being of the gun industry. His anxiety, however, was utterly beside the point. The Government, also, has missed the point. The ban on private holding of handguns should be complete and exceptionless. Ministers seemed yesterday to think they deserved applause for going beyond Cullen, showing only how far they are still afflicted by post-Dunblane myopia. The course is now clear: a complete ban. The sooner it is effected the better.

A complete ban would be a drastic extension of state power into private liberty - that is true. But there is no shortage of historical precedent for democratic governments responding to threat by far-reaching legislation, increasing surveillance and inspection deep in society's innards. Indeed, there are many more worrying instances than the one we propose. The first Defence of the Realm Act was passed by a Liberal government convinced - in the context of the Great War - its extension of government's sphere was justified by the emergency. It wanted to protect a way of life. So it is with handgun control. Banning private ownership of lethal weaponry should be aimed at restoring a status quo in which a less twitchy and frightened society has less need of that apparatus of state power symbolised by the armed police officer. Fewer guns would mean less government.

There is nothing ideological about such a ban: it is a practical response in a special circumstance. Just as there is no logic of history pushing the boundaries of the state ever forward (something the hysterics of the new right like to frighten themselves with), so there is no grand logic driving violent crime upwards. We can and must try to make this country more peaceful. It is historically naive to say British society is "naturally" pacific. What is true is that since the 17th century government has had a pretty effective monopoly on firepower: when Georgians or Victorians rioted they threw stones because all the muskets were secure inside army barracks. By the 20th century that tradition had bedded down into a widespread popular revulsion at the ownership and handling of destructive weapons. Guns are unBritish. That sentiment is, of course, flawed: there are large numbers of illegally held weapons. And the tradition is threatened, by boundaries open to trade with countries with laxer rules. But being anti- gun remains part of this country's social ecology. This is a moment to affirm that aspiration of civic peace.

There are, yes, important points to consider when it comes to proscription - arguments that even the tears of grieving parents cannot dissolve. One of the strongest is John Stuart Mill's plea for liberty: action should remain free up to the point where it harms others. On that basis, the Government might seek to rest its case for allowing guns to be stored at clubs where, in privacy, shooting and the handling of guns ought to threaten no one but their owners. But whatever merit it has in theory, it fails the test of practice. How secure will those armouries be? How are the weapons to be transported for competitive shooting? A blanket ban is simpler to administer, and is therefore certain to be more effective.

What is lost thereby? The pleasure of a handful of enthusiasts only. Though sport has in recent years moved to the centre of our culture as a source of entertainment and inspiration for many, it must not become a fetish. The loss of British participation at the Olympics in pistol shooting is hardly going to dent the national medals tally.

And what is gained? To ban handguns is to show, for once, that this country's Parliament is not entirely the creature of special interests and paid persuaders. There is nothing new about lobbying for legislative favour. What is new is the shamelessness with which lobbyists parade their parliamentary agents, the loudness with which they squeal their sectional case. In the terrible sadness of Dunblane something wonderful was born. The symbol of the snowdrop now adorns a movement of moral force that has shamed even the tired and discredited ministers of the present government into doing very nearly the right thing.

If ever an event proved the shallow self-regard of that Eighties formulation "there is no such thing as society", it was the human response to the death of those children and their teacher in Dunblane. From it, around a core of bereaved parents, there has grown a voluntary organisation whose voice now commands the political centre stage. There are those who continue to resist a blanket ban on handguns, sincerely worried by nanny having to take things away in case we are tempted to misuse them. They fear this means infantilisation. Let them stand a moment alongside those parents in Snowdrop and observe their calm and adult demeanour. The parents' arguments have won not only because they are right, but because in their capacity to translate their grief into practical democratic reform, they represent recuperative human spirit at its awesome and inspiring best.