As an American I am chronically aware that many of my fellow citizens don’t pay much attention to what is going on in other countries. By no means is that an across-the-board statement; it’s just something I have made note of in my interactions with others as I travel about the country. It’s not unusual for Americans to be so unabashedly and ignorantly ethnocentric that they don’t have the slightest idea of what is going in the rest of the world. Who am I kidding? Many don’t even know what is going on in this country. Jay Leno is good at pointing this out from time-to-time in his late night talk show antics (and here). Most Americans know that something is going in in Iraq but many don’t realize that Iran is different than Iraq and they certainly don’t know why Israel is so despised by them. Most of us know that Princess Diana died a while back but don’t know that the recent royal wedding was that of Diana’s son. And I can almost guarantee that many, if not most, Americans don’t know that owning a gun is pretty much completely illegal for citizens in the United Kingdom. That’s right. The only people carrying guns in the UK are the criminals.
I am about as pro-gun as any person can be so I consider it appalling that people in the UK have been stripped of their right to protect their life and property. Criminals don’t abide by laws so the gun-carrying thief breaking into somebody’s home in the UK must feel pretty confident about his chances; he knows that the odds are in his favor that any opposition he encounters is going to be unarmed. If a UK citizen owned a gun in defiance of the law and used it against the thief he would be in as much (or more) trouble as the robber. In the UK, they would both be considered criminals. I find this to be very, very sad: defend your family and your property and become a criminal for doing so. Rest assured that if that same guy broke into my house here in Virginia he would have a six-pack of Coke can sized exit wounds in his back.
But how did guns become illegal in the UK? Was it done in one fell swoop? Nope. It was done in stages, a tactic often used to disarm (literally in this case) the opposing voices. Despite my pro-gun position I didn’t sit down to write about gun control. I continue to be concerned with the fate of reptile ownership in the United States. But the history of gun control in the UK serves as a excellent timeline that illustrates our likely fate unless we get our act together in very short order. Here’s how things went down in the UK:
- 1988 – In the wake of the “Hungerford Massacre” the Firearms (Amendment) Act of 1988 was passed. This law made it illegal to own semi-automatic rifles, pump-action rifles and military weapons that shoot explosives. The law also implemented registration requirements and a requirement for “secure storage” of allowed shotguns. Handguns (pistols) were not impacted at all by this law.
- 1997 – In the wake of the “Dublane Massacre” ownership of almost all handguns was banned. One of the key selling points of the law was that a very limited number of people would be impacted (fewer than 1 in 1,000).
- 2006 – The Violent Crime Reduction Act was passed and this made it illegal to buy/sell air weapons by mail order. This includes things like Airsoft guns. Yep, in the UK it is even illegal to own a fake gun because it looks too much like a real gun. Hilarious. Tragic. Sad.
The path from there to here was implemented through a simple concept: divide and conquer. In the late 1980’s UK pistol owners were apathetic about the proposed ban on rifles because it didn’t affect them. “Why should I care if they ban shotguns?”, they said. “I only keep pistols and bolt-action rifles.” In an act of self-preservation they stayed silent, letting their rifle-owning neighbors have their rights extracted through the legislative process. Those same people who thought they were safe found their rights removed less than a decade later. The politicians who pushed this law through the UK’s legal system were smart to leave pistol owners out of the fight in 1988. Attacking the whole gun-owning population of the UK would have been tantamount to the Humane Society of the United States trying to make pet dogs illegal in the wake of an escaped Nile Monitor killing someone’s Terrier. Patient and resolute the anti-gun movement capitalized on high-profile tragedies to further their agenda. Baby steps. Little-by-little they got it done. And look at the UK now…
Now let’s turn our attention to things here in the USA. Large constrictors are under attack. Most of us know that. And many bearded dragon breeders, ball python breeders, corn snake breeders and leopard gecko breeders could care less. Why? Because they don’t keep large constrictors, of course. That should sound eerily similar to the same apathetic mindset held by UK pistol owners back in 1988. And look what happened to them less than a decade later. Every time there is an isolated incident in the exotic animal community the anti-pet movement gains a little more traction to push through another limiting piece of legislation. Whether it is done state-by-state, the Lacey Act or through the federal law making process, they are as patient and as resolute as the anti-gun zealots in the UK were.
I know how the end of reptile ownership is going to happen. If we continue on our current path it will mirror what happened in the UK. The voices of opposition in the UK screamed, “you can’t legislate a madman”, meaning that a ban on firearms would not stop the next massacre from happening. If someone wants to get a gun and go on a shooting spree it will happen. No law is going to prevent that. My screams as a reptile owner have been of a similar vein. I oppose any legal limitations on the rights of responsible pet owners. No matter how responsible a pet owner I am there will always be someone out there who is not. That person will do something stupid and my rights will be removed as a result.
But why? Why do the actions of a few lead to restrictions on the many? The answer is simple: Legislation is a bludgeon tool. It lacks finesse. Laws have not, can not and will not deal with subtlety and nuance. They are a widely cast net that frequently catches huge numbers of unintended victims. I have already heard it said. “Our inspectors are not trained tell the difference between a Burmese python and a Boa Constrictor so the most simple course of action is to ban them both.” If that’s the case then how would a local law enforcement official tell the difference between a blood python and a burmese python? Simple: He can’t. Well, we better ban blood pythons too …just to be safe. And when the time comes to ban ball pythons you can rest assured that Angolan pythons will be thrown out with them. They look too similar. And so it will happen; our compartmentalized herpetocultural community will fall in small group after small group. And each group will remain silent as the others are attacked. It will probably take the next decade or two to happen but the writing is on the wall. The anti-pet movement is more than ready to wait us out and I have not seen evidence of the community having the stomach for a long fight.
Is there an alternative to legislation? Yes! It’s called self-regulation. And this is where there is a fundamental divide within society. Proponents of large government believe that it is the government’s responsibility to take action to provide for and protect its citizens. Supporters of small government believe that protection is indeed the government’s responsibility but ‘providing’ is the realm of private industry and government should stay out of it. The government should not regulate the commercial interaction between provider and consumer. In a system of self-regulation the industry controls itself from within; it’s a commercial ecosystem that has its balance upset when the dirty fingers of legislation are inserted. Whether we are talking about banking, exotic animals or pharmaceuticals the concept is the same; the industry regulates itself and acts in a responsible manner, no government intervention needed. In the end the consumer is the real regulator because it is only where there is mutual benefit in a transaction that the transaction can take place. Even though I would rather not pay $130/month for my iPhone I still do because I find value in the trade. If my iPhone bill were to double to $260 I would no longer see the value and I would discontinue my service. The provider is always going to push the edge of course; they are a for-profit entity and will always work to get as much as they possibly can without pushing me past the limits of my perceived value. In this delicate balance between consumer and provider we don’t need the government to come in and control mobile phone price plans. Doing so screws up the natural balance of commerce.
When an industry fails to self-regulate it provides a powerful foothold for the supporters of government regulation (banking and health care come to mind here). And that is where we are today in the reptile world. There is no shortage of idiocy in the reptile trade. Someone out there is not securely keeping their reticulated python or rhino viper. Another guy is selling Burmese pythons and eyelash vipers to 14-year old kids at a trade show. And let’s not forget the guy who is keeping hundreds of snakes in horrible filth with no food, water or climate control. None of these people are you, right? Of course not. It always seems to be someone else that is screwing things up for the hobby. The problem is that the consumer:provider mechanism for self-regulation is seemingly absent. The only thing an individual can do is take care of his/her own business; keep their animals secure, well-fed, watered and in a suitable climate. They cannot control what another keeper is doing. This appears to suggest that government regulation is a viable solution, doesn’t it? Without changing what we do as a community, the answer, unfortunately is ‘yes’. The ability to own a reptile in the United States will not survive if we stay on our current path.
But how do we self-regulate? This is a tough question. As a person purchasing a green anaconda I know what my responsibilities are. But what about the seller? It would seem like a no-brainer to say that a person would not sell a baby anaconda to a minor but that has been proved wrong more than once. Should the seller take steps to make sure the person buying is fully prepared to responsibly undertake the long-term ownership of the animal? Is that realistic? No, it’s not. The retail community doesn’t support it. If I put somebody through a gauntlet of questions before selling them a green anaconda at a trade show they are just going to go to another table and buy it from the wholesaler who picked up a 20-lot of them earlier that day and could care about nothing other than their method of payment. The long-term impact: I am not economically viable and another person owns a green anaconda that is doomed to get sick and die …but not before it escapes a few times because he thinks that putting a book on the screen top of his aquarium is going to keep the snake from pushing its way out. Because the community is unable to regulate itself it is primed and ready for government intervention.
Reptile community self-regulation seems viable only if there is widespread individual self-regulation and this illustrates the “you can’t regulate a madman” problem. The reptile community is too large and too diverse in both number and intelligence for there to be any realistic chance to self-regulate. Aside from “lock in a sock” forms of keeper-on-keeper physical violence I don’t know what the answer is. But I do know that if things don’t change we are going to start losing our rights at an ever-increasing rate. And the only people we can truly blame when its over will be ourselves.