What Brexit Can Teach Us About Guns In America

It was a fitful night’s sleep. I live in California, so the results of the British referendum on staying the European Union were already in before I went to bed. I’m still shaking my head at the decision—the campaign was ugly and even cost on Member of Parliament her life—I’m still a little shocked at how divided the United Kingdom is over its bond with Europe.

Why do I care? Some background might help.

Last July I moved back to my hometown after almost nine years in London. I was the pastor of the American International Church there, a community with more than 25 countries represented in the congregation—we were a model of the multi-national diversity present in most European cities. It was an amazing season for me and for my family. We followed the process of thousands of immigrants and held visas, then permanent residency, and finally full citizenship in the United Kingdom. With that status came citizenship in the EU, and we were grateful for the privileges that afforded us.

The decision to leave the EU affects some things for us, and leaves others unchanged. We are still honored to hold dual citizenship in the US and Great Britain—we love the people and the history of our new nation, and want only the best for the people of the United Kingdom. But there’s a sense of loss as well. EU citizenship meant being able to live and work in any of the 28 partner nations without the need to apply for visas. For our son it offered educational and professional options that will now have to be renegotiated, if they survive at all.

But as I was reflecting on these developments today, I found something instructive in the vote to leave the EU, even in my disappointment.

The Brexit vote shatters a core tenet of the defense of gun ownership in America.

If you follow the tortured debates over gun rights in America, then you’ve no doubt heard the trump card (no pun…oh, forget it) played when all the rational arguments have been dismantled.

If Americans can’t own guns, then they’ll lose their ability to resist the tyranny of their own government. Armed defense is the only guarantee of personal freedom.

Forget that our government taking over individual homes and communities is logistically impossible. Forget that the soldiers from our all-volunteer army who would theoretically show up at your door would be your neighbor’s kids, or someone your daughter went to high school with. Forget that even if the army did come to your house, the plastic AR-15 copy that you bought at Walmart would be quickly neutralized by the most powerful fighting force in the world. Forget that this is nonsense on its face.

But still, the idea presses on. If you give up your guns, the fantasy story goes, the government will come and take over your life.

This is where the news about Brexit is instructive.

The United Kingdom has some of the strictest gun laws in the developed world. You can’t buy a gun for personal protection, and hunting weapons are strictly controlled and monitored. Further, Britain is a liberal democracy in the post-WWII European model, which means that it provides healthcare and pensions and housing for its citizens and legal residents. It also means that the government is much more involved in the lives of individual citizens, there’s no getting around that fact. But as you consider the deeply held belief that a disarmed population is somehow powerless against its government, consider this fact:

The Prime Minister, most of his cabinet, and a supermajority of Members of Parliament all opposed the referendum to leave the European Union, and yet the vote was allowed to proceed and the results will be honored.

Think about that. A strong majority within the British government, across both major parties and including most of the minor ones, oppose leaving the EU, but they’re going to do it anyway. Why? Because democracy can work without one side being held at gunpoint by the other.

If there’s a lesson for Americans from the Brexit vote—besides checking your fears about immigration and economic partnership at the door—if there’s a lesson to be learned from Britain’s vote to leave the EU, it’s that the gun lobby and political fringe in America is built on a pernicious lie. If guns are controlled, we will NOT lose our personal and political freedom—we will not be subject to some political bondage fantasy, as some have argued.

Guns are not the source of our freedom—that’s what a disarmed Britain taught us today. Guns are not the hedge against corrupt or incompetent government. What protects us from the dark side of a coercive state is an intelligent and educated voting public, where disagreements are passionate but civil, where both sides are informed but always focused on the goal of a better, freer, more productive, happier life.

Oddly enough, we Americans learned much of that from Great Britain over the years, even as we eclipsed their primacy in production, diplomacy, and military might. Maybe we should learn this lesson, too. Maybe we can learn to reject the lies about guns and tyranny and government overreach, and become better educated—more committed citizens.

The Brexit referendum, which I voted against, still offers a hopeful lesson for American society and our own practice of democracy. We don’t need more guns to direct our government. We need better ideas to energize and shape it to lead us in the directions we want to go. The gun lobby has lied about this essential truth long enough. It’s time to take our own country back.

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