As far as I know there is only one Western democracy in the world where the public generally believes the formula ‘liberals support gun control, conservatives oppose it‘. In most such countries conservative parties and movements have initiated or supported legislation restricting private ownership of weapons as measures introduced in response to mass shootings. Most notably perhaps in the United Kingdom a government led by the oldest and most electorally successful conservative party in the world moved swiftly in response to the Dunblane massacre in which sixteen five or six year old children and one teacher were murdered. The Firearms (Amendment) Act was put onto the statute books the following year.
Conservatism has generally shown itself to be the least ideological of all the world’s political philosophies. It’s supporters tend to hold a small number of fundamental propositions which they then seek to give practical effect to, depending upon the particular conditions of the country and the epoch in which they find themselves. Foremost among these propositions is the idea of Liberty. A human individual or community can only flourish if it is free. Restricting freedom robs from a person the necessary condition to discover for themselves who they are and what they are capable of achieving. Within the idea of Liberty is contained the notion of freedom from the State. However, since threats to Liberty come from more sources than one it would be a distortion of conservatism to restrict it to simply the question of the individual versus the government.
Related to Liberty is the conservative idea of Order. A person cannot be free if they have a reasonable apprehension that their property might be stolen, confiscated or destroyed. Still less can they be free if they or their loved ones run the risk of being assaulted, raped or murdered as they go about their normal daily life. Therefore to enjoy Liberty it is necessary that one lives in what St Augustine described as the ‘tranquillity of order.‘ The conservative thinker Edmund Burke wrote “good order is the foundation of all things.” Conservatives then consider that the legitimate function of the State is the preservation of Order. This must be so because if the defence of Order were left to individuals then there would a) be no means of protecting a community or nation from external enemies and b) the arbitrary rule of the strong over the weak would be the norm for daily life.
There is necessarily a tension between Liberty and Order. If the first is unconstrained it enables some individuals to tyrannise others thereby removing their liberty and sometimes ending their lives. If the second is unconstrained it too becomes a tyranny removing freedom from individuals and communities and placing them at the service of the State rather than placing the State at the service of them. Therefore a third conservative principle is the rule of Law whereby both the State and the individual accept reasonable restrictions upon their freedom of action in order to permit the State on the one hand to ensure Order and the individual on the other to enjoy Liberty. This is the area where the conservative genius for pragmatism comes to the fore because the boundaries between the citizen and the State cannot be fixed in a procrustean way on the basis of a rigid ideological formula but must be drawn up in line with the needs of the day always bearing in mind the need for both Order and Liberty.
Which brings us to gun control. There are conservative arguments against it. Firstly, in general everything should be permitted unless there is good reason to forbid it. Secondly, by their very nature weapons are tools which individuals can use to defend themselves against tyrannical acts proceeding either from the State or from other individuals. The conservative argument for it proceeds on the basis of the need for the tranquillity of order. Where the widespread private ownership of weapons presents no threat to the peaceable enjoyment of Liberty by citizens then the State has no business to interfere. Where this is not the case, where citizens live in fear that their visit to school, college, church or shopping mall will end in the morgue then there are good conservative grounds to, if not forbid, at least restrict the private ownership of guns.
Gun control as such is not a question of principle. Liberty and Order are principles. Where a society is so deeply suspicious of the State that they will countenance murderous disorder as an alternative to reasonable restrictions on the ownership and use of armaments then they have left the ordinary discourse of conservatism behind. Edmund Burke also said– “Permit me then to continue our conversation, and to tell you what the freedom is that I love, and that to which I think all men entitled. This is the more necessary, because, of all the loose terms in the world, liberty is the most indefinite. It is not solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish liberty, as if every man was to regulate the whole of his conduct by his own will. The liberty I mean is social freedom. It is that state of things in which liberty is secured by the equality of restraint.” A country which identifies conservatism with opposition to gun control is a country which misunderstands conservatism and confuses it with extreme individualism.
My other blog is Catholic Scot
The picture is from the Dunblane Memorial Garden