Guns and Social Morality

The Encouragement of Evil

Why both guns and self-righteous legal pomposity are a threat to civilised human life – and not just because of Dunblane

By Gwydion M. Williams, writing as Walter Cobb

The world is a global village, but most of us do not live there. Media hype decides who becomes a global villager, who remains part of the unnoticed background. And any fool knows dial a really evil deed is the quickest route to fame. That is the first way in which the whole society is guilty of the encouragement of evil.

To encourage a crime is never as bad as actually committing it, obviously. The encouragement may even be ignorant and free from ill intent. Rape, murder, massacre and horror sell newspapers, after all. The founders of “Yellow Journalism” may genuinely have believe that they would not have any influence on people’s conduct. And yet – on all sorts of oilier matters, they did and still do believe that they can encourage or discourage things. Mostly, they overestimate their own power. It is only when they are confronted with a challenge to highly-profitable “Yellow Journalism” that they suddenly forget what they believe most of the lime.

But I would also count the media as minor villains. They may fan the flames, but only if those flames are burning in the first place. And Dunblane killer Thomas Hamilton seems from his letters to have shared the wider culture of guns, punishment and self-righteous rhetoric. Not the same, certainly. But similar enough to make it clear what and whom he looked to for encouragement and self- justification.

The late Thomas Hamilton certainly had a very unhealthy attitude to children. But it seems this never extended to actual sex or sexual molesting. He was rejected by Scouts as dangerous and irresponsible, not over alleged sexual misconduct. And – weirdly enough – it seems there was no regular or legal way to slop him setting up as a child-care expert. You need a licence to run a pub. You have to pass a test to drive a car. But you can set yourself up to run the lives of vulnerable children with no qualifications at all. And Hamilton even got a favourable ruling from the Ombudsman after a local council tried to stop him leasing school halls. (Independent, 16th March.)

There is a need to make child care a subsidised and well-paid profession carried out by well-vetted people. It should be done by personality, not paper qualifications, which test only skill at handing paper. Access to and power over oilier people’s children should be seen as a privilege, not a right or a forum for volunteers. ‘This is the only real long-term solution. But no doubt the advocates of “family values” will fiercely resist any notion of either expenditure or regulation, despite the obvious mess of the present system. Blatantly unsuitable volunteers will still be welcomed as relieving any danger of burden to the taxpayers. Money in the hands of rich people is seen as far more important than the welfare of children. The Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth even sent Hamilton a letter congratulating him after the got his favourable judgment from the Ombudsman. (Independent, ibid.)

No formal means exists to keep people like Hamilton away from boys. So in typical British fashion, the whole matter was dealt with by smear and innuendo. It was done informally, in a manner dial would lead any reasonable person to suppose dial the man had been abusing children in his charge, which was in fact untrue. This was the basis for Hamilton’s claim that he was being persecuted – and personal vengeance is widely romanticised.

Personal violence is the oldest, crudest and most commonly unjust system of enforcing some basic standard on a human society. In a tribe, anyone may try to enforce what they see as proper conduct on anyone else. But both the facts and the common rules of culture are open to dispute. When civilisation tries to bind together many tribes, some more formal rules are necessary. Law was invented, not as a means to perfection, but simply to curb the brutal and destructive pattern of the blood-feud.

Personal vengeance is something we should have moved beyond, but recent drift has been all the wrong way. Freedom of abstract isolated individuals has been expanded, at the expense of actual individuals who exist within real societies. Gun freedom is part of this, and we are drifting towards the American concept of personal “defence”, a return to tribalism. No one should have a gun without some very good reason for having it. Freedom to own a gun for private purposes contradicts the freedom of others not to be shot – or have their children shot.

Almost anyone can feel oppressed. The worst sort of people arc those with no ability to see their own actions as wrong, regardless. Myra Hindley feels herself oppressed at still being kept in prison, for instance.

British culture is currently dominated by the dregs of Liberalism. The historic task of Liberalism was to destroy Christian civilisation as it has been understood up until the 18th century. We no longer stone adulterers or burn witches, and those who talk about “Christian values” have no desire to return to self- styled “Christian values” as they were actually practised in the 16th and 17th centuries. Thus far, Liberalism was a great step forward. But the very reasonable desire to expand the range of human freedom has led to a naive and dangerous belief that “proper people” need no controls. Only a few cranks will try applying this wholeheartedly – though The Economist has been campaigning for the decriminalisation of all drugs, including heroin and crack cocaine. In general most people – including The Economist on most topics – justify some controls for the “prevention of wickedness”.  This has the corollary that any necessary social control brands person being controlled as not a proper person, and very probably wicked and unfit to live.

There is such a thing as evil. I do not propose to say much about its likely original causes, which tire utterly obscure and beyond our present knowledge of the human brain. Some people stay nice even in worst circumstances. Some people go wrong despite having had every possible advantage. The reason for such differences is not the main point, nor arc we yet knowledgeable enough to (ell why one human brain works differently from another. It could be inheritance, trauma, chemicals, the Infernal Lord Lucifer, whatever. The point is, even after one has recognised personal evil, one should not avoid the separate question of how such evils may be cured or encouraged.

When it comes to evils like crime, riots and looting, the louts and the ministers each concentrate on side of the equation that they cannot be blamed for.  Louts who have the option of doing something about their own loutishness, prefer to concentrate on social evils – even though few of them bother to vote. Ministers, who could do plenty about the social causes of evil, prefer to talk about the individual aspect, the tiling that they cannot change and also cannot be held responsible for.

One cannot get rid of the lunatic fringe of gun-owners without abolishing the entire culture of privately held guns. The aim should be to squeeze gun- enthusiasm out of culture. There is no need to demonise existing gun-owners, and this will indeed be counterproductive, since most people will know at least one gun-enthusiast who is a decent enough person in most ways. But if, say, one in ten thousand gun enthusiast is a lunatic killer, doubling the number of legitimate enthusiasts also doubles number of lunatics. Halving the one should halve the other, and squeezing that particular culture out of existence ought to get rid of a crime dial in past times did not occur in Britain.

There has been talk about “character references” for gun owners. This is unlikely to do much good. For it is not just loners who can go on mad gun- rampages. A family man is of course more likely to shoot his wife or mother- in-law, or whoever else the rampagee sees as the main immediate source of annoyance and perceived injustice. But Lee Harvey Oswald had a wife and a house and a regular job. Fred West was a family man and an enterprising small businessman. Mass-murderers as a group turn out to include much the same mix of loners and sociable fellows and couples and family men as are found in the general population.

Pragmatically, it might be wiser to accept the existing rights of existing gun owners. Unstable characters with guns should be persuaded gently to discard them, if possible. But one could also stop the numbers multiplying, and create a climate in which the possession of firearms would gradually come to be seen as a very nasty habit. There are alternative outlets – paintball shooting, for instance. And enthusiastic hunters could use bows and arrows – no crossbows, since these arc also lethal and were banned as ethically hideous when first introduced into mediaeval warfare. Hunting with ordinary bows would be environmentally more friendly, and give the poor animals a sporting chance. Flint spears would be even better.

The whole guns-as-virtue American culture has invaded us and needs to be pushed out again. It is a nasty habit that people need to be weaned away from. In the 18th century, most people in both Britain and America owned some sort of weapon, knife or sword or gun. Britain managed to disarm its population and make the whole place much safer and more civilised – while still able to fight hard when the need arose. America went the other way, enshrining and glorifying gun use, multiplying the numbers of murders and suicides and accidental killings by panicky householders.

People talk about the number of illegal guns that would still be out there regardless of any legal curbs. Personally, I am much less worried about guns owned by professional criminals than guns owned by enthusiasts. Professional criminals usually kill for fairly rational reasons, to advance their career in crime, which means that they mostly kill other criminals. And a general absence of guns means that only the very heaviest sort of criminals carry them. Burglars in Britain know that they will get much longer sentences if caught with firearms, whereas encountering an armed householder is very unlikely. But if large numbers of law-abiding persons of impeccable character started keeping guns for legitimate self-defence, the balance of criminal self-interest would shift and armed crime would become very much more widespread.

There is also the nature of the weapons themselves. Knives are nasty enough, but more likely to lead to a stand-off than to sudden death. Common items like chairs and stools and dustbin lids can be used as emergency protection. There is no defence against a gun except to take cover or else shoot the gun-wielder. With guns, the strong temptation is to play safe and shoot a possible enemy before they can shoot you. They may of course turn out to be unarmed, or a friend or relative that you have mis-recognised in your panic. That sort of thing happens all the lime in the USA, and one must expect to see it spreading over here.

Criminals hardly likely to reject guns until mainstream culture does so. Criminal culture in Britain did used to be gun-free. It was not that razor-gangs and the like were nice people, but there was an understood framework. It kept crime within some limits, up until the time when the generation of the Kray Twins started copying the American gun-culture that they had seen at the movies. And even they were a transitional generation; the characters who succeeded them were distinctly worse and more prone to use lethal force. Still, there still arc limits, and only the top ranks of the underworld are in the habit of carrying guns. There is also a strong desire to keep an unarmed police force – no one wants the US pattern where cops are likely to enforce a crude sort of street or death-squad justice.

Evil is banal. Violent and aggressive impulses are common and widespread, and usually restrained. One would not see anything remarkable about a fellow who trips on his own feet and falls into the gutter. There is always an internal battle within each individual to remain decently human. An evil person is usually no splendid monster, but just someone who loses that internal battle in a spectacular fashion. And some of the really evil characters have all sorts of ways of finding that it was someone else’s fault.

Individual responsibility does not apply only to one’s own deeds. We shape each other all the time. While the individual criminal is certainly guilty, the rest of us are not thereby automatically innocent. Far too many law-abiding citizens are keen to go along the US road of high crime, savage punishment, high prison population and extremely dangerous streets. Yet the Hamilton case is yet another example of the total irrelevance of punishment for the worst sort of crime – the man executed himself, after all.

One is also gelling a drift towards the American attitude to law. where it is all about formal rules and not actual deeds. All unwanted judgments are seen as injustice, and an immediate correction is demanded. And there is indeed some grounds for suspicion. In the case of the Birmingham Six, one could only conclude that British justice sees merit in having someone to blame for every evil, even if it is in fact the wrong person. For me – and for many other British people – that case saw the definite end of any belief that the judges were honestly doing their best according to their own lights. A bunch of right-wing cowboys on the judicial bench have succeeded in doing what generations of radicals could not do – they have destroyed the faith of Britons in the venerable peculiarities of their own legal system.

While the old norms have collapsed, no “natural” system has sprung up to replace it. Rhetoric about freedom means that people cannot be controlled without demonising and dehumanising them. Those you demonise may occasionally decide to become demons, of course. And that is the worst sort of encouragement of evil.



This article appeared in April 1996, in Issue 53 of Labour and Trade Union Review, now Labour Affairs.  You can find more from the era at and