Soon after the attempt on President Reagan's life, I received a letter from a friend in England stating that this event only reinforced her need "to pray daily for your safety in that wild and violent country" -- the United States. The letter went on to compare the virtues of England and the voices of America.
Merrie England! It requires a bold mental effort to picture that country's green and guileless land as anything but law-abiding citizens full of respect for common law and civility to each other.
Yet less than 200 years ago England was diabolically booby-trapped from end to end as if by a retreating army; glades stuck with lethal spears, copses strewn with great saw-toothed mantraps and sprinkled with the trip wires of "spring guns."
Britain, on the cutting edge of the Industrial Revolution, was drawing its people into the cities. A great social upheaval was taking place, requiring a hard new look at laws that had adequately governed the native population for almost 300 years. Among these were the Game Laws, which in essence stated that only those who owned land on which game lived could actually kill, dress, eat, and sell the game. To protect this "right" the infernal machine," the spring gun, was constituted as an inalienable right of all Englishmen to protect their property.
The arguments were identical to those in America's gun-control issue today: that spring guns do not kill peopple, people kill people; the right to defend property and life; a protection against the dual threat of national insurrection and local crime; and the right that every man is answerable only to himself with little or no regard for the effect of his right upon others.
The legality of setting and owning such lethal (for the day) weapons was never clearly established.The arguments pro and con rested on a hodge-podge of personal morality, emotion, and mysticism.
It is not the purpose of this article to establish either a right or a wrong approach to the gun-control issue or to provide an answer to the problem. What I am concerned with is the need for a just perspective on the growth of the United States, and to see it in proportion to the growth of similar countries that have managed to establish a sane and respected attitude towards weapons and personal armaments in particular.
Much of a gunowner's attitude toward owning a gun is merely to create a healthy terror among prospective wrongdoers, and the flaw here is that every potential victim is tried in advance of the intended crime. The ability to own a gun fills in the gaps that people feel exist in the equal application of common law to all people.
In Britain, it wasn't just a question of passing a law that banned the setting and use of spring guns.The day of the spring gun was also the day of the system under which children crawled on all fours dragging coal-laden sleds behind them; when men ruptured themselves lifting loads onto their daughters' backs and tiny boys lived for days in the flue systems of great houses.
Our descendants may see that the indifference of the 19th century to death and suffering in the mills is fully matched by the same conditions on our highways, while a government that readily commits its young men to senseless war is hardly in a position to simply legislate away the need for personal armament.
I wrote to my friend pointing out the similarites of the British and American peoples and the common heritage they share. I tried to assure her tha the conscience and innate decency of the American people would form a better shield against abuses than legislation alone.
The period through which Britain passed was, like the present period in America, one of the great moral and social change. Rural and urban England was sick, but it was not a sickness that could be cured by spring guns or by simply banning them. Nor will the opposition to the banning of handguns be seen as any more peculiar one hundred years from now than some of the reasons we produce today for perpetuating hardships and unjustice. I hope American s will also be able to look back and wonder why there was so much fuss about banning a killing machine in the 1980s.