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15 June 2022

From the NS archive: Guns and violence

15 January 1965: The end of hanging and the future of firearms.

By CS Rolph

The last executions in the UK took place in 1964, before capital punishment was suspended for murder in 1965 (and finally abolished in 1969). In January 1965 the journalist CH Rolph, who had previously served with the City of London Police, dismissed the argument that the end of hanging was likely to lead to an increase in shootings of police officers. It would, however, force the country to reconsider its firearms laws, under which it remained perfectly legal for small arms to be held in private hands “where they serve no conceivable civilised purpose”, he wrote. But this was Britain: “To ask for a ban on sporting weapons might be crying for the moon, in a country where any fine day is hailed as a challenge to go out and kill something.” So what about arming the police?

The firearms problem, suddenly current again, perfectly exemplifies the malign influence of the death penalty and one of the benefits that can flow from its abolition. So long as we could hang the gunman we could, in effect, say to the widow of a murdered policeman or bank officer: “All square, madam. We’ve caught the man and killed him. This may discourage the further misuse of private murder weapons.” In a few years’ time it will be incredible to all sane people that this could ever have seemed an intelligent system. At the moment, sincere and undoubtedly generous anger is turned upon the abolitionists by those who accuse them – as they always have – of showing no concern for the victim.

Last Sunday’s mass circulation papers (with the vigorous exception of the People) were at it again. Typically – “The murderer, poor misunderstood fellow,” wrote Douglas Bader in the News of the World, “has been the object of pity about whom something must be done. His victim is forgotten.” What is forgotten is that it was a team of abolitionists led by Margery Fry who, after years of research and propaganda, forced the authorities to abandon the plea that nothing could be done about compensating victims of violent crime – and their dependants. But for this campaign, these would still be left with what moral comfort they could extract from the news of an execution or a heavy prison sentence. And abolitionists have always urged the stricter control of firearms.

The end of hanging is unlikely to entail in this country an increase of shot policemen. It never has elsewhere. But it looks as though it may force upon us, many years too late to save a large number of lives, a reconsideration of our complex and largely ineffectual firearms acts, which allow many thousands of small arms to remain, quite legally, in private hands where they serve no conceivable civilised purpose and whence they are so easily stolen. To ask for a ban on sporting weapons might be crying for the moon, in a country where any fine day is hailed as a challenge to go out and kill something. Even the National Farmers’ Union, a few years ago, was rebuffed by the Home Office when it put up sensible proposals for keeping dangerous weapons out of the hands of “the wrong people”. But who are the right people? I cannot see why anyone in this country should need a pistol or revolver for his private use.

[see also: The Texas school shooting won’t change the US’s deadly gun laws]

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American shooting history may not offer many examples worth copying, but one of them, surely, is the law which totally prohibits the carrying or possession of firearms capable of concealment about the person or in the glove-pocket of a car. It is common to most states of the Union. Such a law could be (and would need to be) better enforced here than in America, where the police and customs authorities have 500,000 miles of coastline and state boundary to watch; but the first need here is a new Firearms Act – or an amendment, on the lines suggested later, to the Murder (Abolition of Capital Punishment) Bill. At present the only adults unable by law to get a firearm certificate from the police, for a pistol, revolver or rifle, are prisoners (for up to five years after their discharge), ex-prisoners on licence or “compulsory aftercare”, and offenders on probation with a special condition that they must do without firearms. At present these seem to be precisely the people using them; and there is nothing, no inquiry of any sort, to prevent any of them getting the necessary 10-shilling Post Office licence for a smooth-bore shotgun or other sporting weapon, for which no police certificate is needed. About 400,000 such licences were pushed across Post Office counters last year.

Chief constables have done their best (and been roundly cursed for it) to keep small arms out of private hands. They have progressively stiffened their own interpretation, initially a matter for them alone, of what the Firearms Act 1937 means when it says that an applicant must have “good reason” for having the firearm and show that he can be “permitted to have it without danger to the public safety or to the peace”. But the act gives disappointed gunmen a right of appeal to Quarter Sessions, some of which have long been notoriously lax and perfunctory in overriding police decisions.

[see also: The Buffalo shooting and the rise of the lone wolf terrorist]

The question of “arming the police”, which really means giving them guns that everyone can see, is beset by much misunderstanding and a little misrepresentation. It is said, for example, that in all the abolitionist countries the police carry firearms, which in some way take the place of the death penalty for killing policemen. This is not true, as it happens, of New Zealand, and in some European countries the disarming of the police is not likely to be long delayed. It also disregards, for purposes of comparison, the fact that any policeman in this country who wants an “automatic” for self-protection in arresting a man known to be armed can get one within minutes. The escaped prisoner who was caught blazing away at the police from a Kensington basement the other day could have been shot instead of hit on the head with a truncheon; but the police preferred hitting him on the head. Podola [Guenther Podola, the last man to be hanged in Britain for killing a police officer] could have been shot instead of being felled by the collapse of his bedroom door. Our policemen prefer the truncheon, and they are wise.

In 1956 the New York Institute of Criminology produced a research report showing that far more of the city’s policemen were being accidentally shot by their colleagues, and even more often by their own children, than by lawbreakers. I remember a two-year period in which, because of a current terrorist campaign, a selected number of uniformed policemen were put into plain clothes and carried Webley-Scotts everywhere on duty. In all those months only one of those pistols went off, though there were many arrests. The bullet went through the foot of the man cleaning the weapon, and he spent the rest of his service on compassionate light-duty fatigue, a limping reminder that this is not a Red Gulch territory.

Contacts with European police forces, both official and (more helpfully) unofficial, have often led me to wonder whether the pistol holsters on their belts are empty as often as the truncheon pockets of British police trousers. The comparison suggests a march of events, set in parallel motion by the forces that have ended the death penalty in the majority of European countries. It is obvious that a proposal to arm our own police will be taken seriously in the next debate on the Abolition Bill. It would be an appropriate step, even if it might be unorthodox legislation, to insert into this bill a clause putting a total ban on the possession or use of pistols or revolvers by civilians. Their use cannot be justified for any purpose whatsoever. Their present holders should be required to give them up, including all those now entitled to have them without certificates – slaughtermen, shooting-club members, theatres, race starters, even firearms dealers. A drastic proposal? It compares favourably with hanging people for their misuse. No doubt we shall shortly see another “amnesty” allowing the surrender of small arms with “no questions asked”. The last one, in 1961, produced almost 70,000 items, and one in 1946 a similar number. But the incredible sequel was that, instead of being dumped in the North Sea, many of these guns were allowed to be resold to the public by firearms dealers. The official view seemed to be that a firearm is no longer dangerous when someone holds a police certificate for it.

A small-arms ban would further rationalise the sensible plea of Mr Ranulph Bacon, the Metropolitan Police assistant commissioner, about the duty of private citizens seeing a gunman carrying out a raid: “It depends entirely how you are placed in the situation, but if you can have a go, then have a go.” If having a go meant walking into a hail of bullets, then there would be no cause for surprise in the admissions of so many people, in television and radio interviews and letters to the press, that they would walk somewhere else. It might even justify the otherwise incredible observations of the Public Safety Council’s officials, who said that Mr Bacon’s advice was “utterly irresponsible and suicidal”, and of the National Council for Civil Liberties, which reached the tortuous conclusion that, by demonstrating the inability of the police to deal with crime, it would lead to “increased violence, suspicion, and lawlessness”.

I usually avoid self-quotation, constrained by the poverty of the material; but I find that, five years ago, writing about “London’s New Gangsters” (they were the “protection men”, but I must have decided to treat them as new) I said: “There are accidents of timing that make life difficult for people like law reformers, government spokesmen and sociologists.“ Such an accident was the escape of a child murderer on the very day when Mr Silverman was introducing his Abolition Bill. I thought the “retentionist” press was very restrained about it. Another is the recent outcrop of shooting cases, and about this the newspapers are, understandably, more disturbed. An opponent of the bill would be less than human not to think he saw cause and effect here. There is world-wide experience to show that he would be wrong, and such fears must not be allowed to assume the guise of an exclusive concern for the victims of murder and assault or a special knowledge of the philosophy of deterrent punishment.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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