I Grew Up on Guns. Now I've Learned to Love Firearm Control.


One evening in 2008, I attended a Republican rally in Kansas, with an address by vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. Because I am very tall and somehow visibly un-American, I was quizzed by neighbors in the crowd. One of them asked me defiantly, though not offensively: “What do people like you not like about people like us? Is it that we’re Christians? Is it that we’re White? Is it that we do guns?”

I answered cautiously. But I felt able to say plenty about guns, which have been big in my life — too big, I fear. My father would have qualified as a gun nut, even by National Rifle Association standards. He not only owned sporting weapons, but also muzzle-loading flintlocks together with pistols of every kind, dating from several centuries.

He brought keepsakes back from World War II — Luger, Mauser and Radom semi-automatics, together with a Schmeisser submachine gun. In my childhood in the 1950s, many British as well as American homes boasted such lethal souvenirs which, curiously enough, were seldom employed in crime.

When my parents were absent, which was quite often, I loved to play with father’s toys. My sister’s garden seat still shows the holes where, aged 11, I emptied a 9-millimeter magazine into it. Our local village regarded the Hastings family as unreliable even before word got around of my unauthorized excesses with weapons. Local folklore held that I was “inadequately supervised.” Which was true.

I recite this personal history before considering the latest appalling U.S. massacres in Atlanta, Colorado, Indianapolis and elsewhere. It is intended to dispel the common response of American enthusiasts to the rest of the world’s horror: “Foreigners don’t understand guns.” There was a time when I understood little else: I could strip and reassemble all manner of firearms with far more dexterity than I displayed with a cricket bat.

Yet to me today, as to hundreds of millions of others, it seems a kind of madness that a civilized society should suppose that it is acceptable, or even sane, to permit ordinary citizens to possess weapons that have no sporting application, but are purpose-built to kill people.

Britain drastically curbed possession of such guns in the later 20th century, even though our gun crime was relatively very low. In 1966, three policemen were murdered in London’s Shepherd’s Bush by a criminal using an illegally owned revolver. This prompted moves, matched elsewhere in Europe, to reduce the number of weapons in circulation.

A succession of statutory amnesties permitted people to surrender unauthorized guns, notably war souvenirs, at police statiowithout penalty. This prompted thousands of people, including my father, to hand in their lethal playthings. Some big-thinkers produced bazookas and machine guns.

Although mass shootings are mercifully rare in Britain, each such horror that has taken place — notably at Hungerford in 1987, when 17 people including the killer perished, then at Dunblane in Scotland in 1996, when 16 schoolchildren and a teacher were shot — prompted new restrictions on gun ownership. Today, private citizens in general are permitted to hold only sporting shotguns firing not more than three cartridges without reloading, and non-repeating rifles.

In Australia, after the 1996 Port Arthur massacre in which a gunman armed with two semi-automatic rifles killed 35 people, the Australian government committed several hundred million dollars to a buyback of privately held weapons, removing at least 640,000 from circulation. Gun laws were also drastically tightened. Opinion polls show steady and overwhelming Australian public support for such curbs.

In Britain, I was among those who objected on libertarian grounds when, after the Dunblane killings, private ownership of handguns was all but prohibited. The measure seemed disproportionate, especially when our target-pistol shooters were frequent Olympic medalists.

I have since changed my mind. I have come to believe that widespread firearms ownership is a pollutant; that we are a better, much safer society without handguns. Some drug gangs in Britain are illegally armed, but they use their weapons almost exclusively to kill each other. In the year ending in March 2019, only 33 people were fatally injured in U.K. gun crimes. 

My resistance to private ownership of military weapons is strengthened by close acquaintance with them. I once won a prize as a member of a British Parachute Regiment team, shooting with automatic rifle, submachine gun and light-machine gun. I know how terrifyingly easy it is for a man or woman — though it is always men — with a gun in their hands to touch a trigger and broadcast devastation and death.

I have experienced the thrill that many adolescents get from firing weapons on what Vietnam grunts used to call “rock ‘n’ roll” — full automatic — with fragments flying off everything in the line of fire, and empty cases clattering out of the breech.

The argument is advanced by U.S. apologists for a weapons free-for-all: “Guns don’t kill. People do.”

In truth, everyone familiar with firearms knows how much possession of a gun facilitates homicide — and suicide, which accounted for more than half of last year’s 43,000 U.S. firearms deaths. It requires absurdly little physical effort, or even psychological commitment, to point and fire a gun.

No other nation in the world comes near the U.S. in its scale of gun ownership: 400 million weapons, counting legal and illicit, according to the Small Arms Survey; against 16 million in Germany, 13 million in France and perhaps around 3 million in the U.K. According to the United Nations, Americans own 46% of all the world’s guns in private hands.

U.S. gun sales rose by 40% in 2020, as the pandemic intensified nameless, undefined fears. Many of these gun owners cannot credibly explain what threat their personal arms are supposed to defend against. It would be hard to shoot a virus, for instance. People want the weapons anyway, however, and the gun industry is grateful.

The triumph of the National Rifle Association’s decades of political lobbying — the group reportedly spent $5 million before January’s Georgia Senate runoff elections alone — is to make weapon ownership seem an inherent part of American identity, especially in the eyes of Republicans and people living in the country.

Yet this is a fiction. A spate of recent books has shown that the association of right-wing patriotism with gun ownership is a recent construct. It had its origins in the 1960s, and gained more traction in the era of Ronald Reagan Republicanism, nurturing a historical myth of virtuous, armed white cowboys settling scores with Native Americans, Mexicans, rustlers and just about everyone else. 

Possessing an automatic weapon makes some people walk taller. They believe that it offers empowerment, in an age when some humble citizens cry out for means to resist “them” — forces of authority and racial alienation, which rouse their resentment and fear.

In Britain, by contrast, most of my fellow citizens flinch from guns. Shooting councils and countryside bodies, on several of which I have served, often debate this issue. I have come to believe that my compatriots’ wariness, irritating though it can be for us bird shooters, is a fault on the right side.

Another distinction between the U.S. and everywhere else is that the overwhelming majority of our arms are pellet shotguns, of relatively low lethality. I own five such weapons, and one rifle. When I renew my licenses — every five years — I must produce evidence that I have legitimate access to appropriate places to shoot; a certificate from my doctor, testifying to my physical and psychological fitness; and supporting character references from two respectable citizens who know me well.

I accept such tough licensing conditions — as do Canadians, for instance — as a price gun owners must expect to pay for having tools in our homes that endow us with the power to kill. Moreover, British law rejects any right for citizens to shoot to defend property. Far from keeping a gun handy under my bed, all my weapons must be held in locked cabinets, subject to inspection by the police. If my wife and I found ourselves faced with intruders, I would not think of reaching for one of my guns: Such a response would probably prompt my indictment, for using a firearm with intent to endanger life.

Everybody who studies U.S. experience knows that legally held firearms are almost never successfully used by civilians, either to prevent a crime or to frustrate a mass shooting. The more extreme U.S. gun lobbyists insist that the best response to gun massacres is to arm more people, including schoolteachers, to defend themselves. There is no shred of evidence, nor credible speculation, to justify such a claim.

Most people seem to accept the enthusiasm of rural Americans for owning sporting guns as an assertion of the frontier spirit, which is in some measure shared by foreign sportsmen like me. Yet assault rifles, such as so many self-proclaimed militiamen now boast, have no application for practicing target skills or killing deer.

What makes such guns unique is that they have no benign application whatsoever, nor relevance to a civilized society, save in the hands of good soldiers or the right kind of police officers. Their sole application is to kill, to destroy. It has taken me most of a lifetime fully to acknowledge this.

The U.S. Congress is the only major national legislature in the world that is willing to endorse citizens’ claims that ownership of an AR-15, or attending school or work with a concealed handgun, represents a constitutional right. The Second Amendment Foundation, a firearms lobby, recently denounced President Joe Biden’s proposal for new restrictions as signifying that he has “declared war on tens of millions of law-abiding gun owners.”

Whatever fine words echo forth from Democrats, we know that gun control will not happen as long as the Republican Party is inseparably entwined with the gun lobby, lavishly funded by the gun industry.

I have often expressed my faith in the U.S. and its powers of economic, political and strategic resurgence. Yet the nation’s gun sickness is more frightening than the Covid-19 pandemic, because it is self-inflicted, and impervious to vaccines. It poses a threat to the world’s faith in American civilization, and indeed strikes at the heart of that civilization.

As a child, I enjoyed the movies of Charlton Heston. Today, however, I cannot bear to watch him on a screen, because I see only the fanatical five-term president of the NRA. Perhaps nothing would do more to elevate respect abroad for the U.S. than for its government to find the will and means to disarm its citizenry; to curb the appalling gun death toll. This is unlikely to happen in my lifetime, however, and probably not in yours, because the malady has eaten so deep into the nation’s soul. 

The only measures with a chance of passing some future Congress, less fissured than today’s, are curbs on assault weapons and concealed handguns; statutory security measures to make guns less accessible to irresponsible minors, such as I once was; and character checks, to deny arms to identifiable madmen. Until such palliatives are adopted, the civilized world, which craves U.S. moral as well as strategic leadership, shares the despair of tens of millions of decent Americans.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Max Hastings is a Bloomberg columnist. He was previously a correspondent for the BBC and newspapers, editor in chief of the Daily Telegraph, and editor of the London Evening Standard. He is the author of 28 books, the most recent of which are "Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy" and "Chastise: The Dambusters Story 1943."

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