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All the Way Down the Slippery Slope: Gun Prohibition in England and Some Lessons for Civil Liberties in America

David B. Kopel, Denver University, Sturm College of Law
Joseph Olson, Hamline University

Abstract

Whenever civil liberties issues are contested, proponents of greater restrictions often chide civil liberties defenders for being unwilling to offer moderate concessions. Frequently, persons advocating restrictions on civil liberties claim that the "moderate" restriction will not infringe the core civil liberty. When rights advocates raise the "slippery slope" argument, they are criticized for being excessively fearful. The goal of the article is to refine our understanding of "slippery slopes" by examining a case in which a civil liberty really did slide all the way down the slippery slope.

The right to arms in Great Britain was entirely unrestricted at the beginning of the twentieth century; as the century ends, the right is dead, and only a feeble, severely constricted privilege to possess certain "sporting" guns remains. The article examines, step-by step, how Britain moved from a strong, unfettered right to near-total prohibition of that right. While each of Britain's incremental steps towards gun control was, in itself, reasonable, the cumulative effect was to destroy the right gradually.

Although the right to arms is the focus of the article, the article also discusses many other civil liberties, and their fate in twentieth century Britain and America. The article concludes that, in light of historical experience, organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association of America, which vigorously resist even the smallest perceived infringements on constitutional rights, may be acting prudently in the long term, even though their "no concessions" stance may appear unreasonable in the short term.

Suggested Citation

David B. Kopel and Joseph Olson. "All the Way Down the Slippery Slope: Gun Prohibition in England and Some Lessons for Civil Liberties in America" Hamline Law Review (1999): 399-465.
Available at: http://works.bepress.com/david_kopel/34