This is the one fact you need to know to understand gun control in America: half the guns are held by 3% of the people.

First, let’s just make this clear: the other 50% of the guns still represents over a hundred million guns.

And let’s repeat the one fact that should lead to immediate gun control: two-thirds of the people who die of a gunshot wound – over 20,000 people a year – commit suicide, and most do it with the one gun they own, and half of them do it with a gun they bought in the last week, and the fact that the gun industry has fought tooth and nail to prevent even basic suicide prevention measures – that they have successfully lobbied, in fact to prevent treating gun deaths as a health issue – means that the gun industry has 20,000 deaths a year on their hands before you even start talking about the 10,000 times a year someone kills someone else with a gun. (For reference, about 60,000 Americans died in the entire Vietnam War).

The thing is … those 3% owning half the guns are not, on the whole, psychotic loony survivalists.

The business model for the gun industry is the hobbyist one: the same as for comics, or scrapbooking or model trains – you have a very small, but very loyal market, with a completist instinct, with the need to buy all sorts of accessories and equipment to display and organise their collection. And, as with comics, and scrapbooking and model trains, there are specialist hobby stores, and as with those other hobbies, it’s much easier to get an existing, regular customer to buy another thing than to get a new customer into your door. And the store owners want new products all the time, to make sure that their customers come by (and buy) every few weeks, not every few years.

Attempts by the gun industry to widen their market have failed dismally. They tried marketing smaller guns to women … women didn’t buy them. So, making lemonade from that lemon, they started telling their existing base that, sure, they owned a big gun, but what they needed was a little gun, one they could carry around, hidden for when they needed it. A problem with that was that it was illegal to carry a concealed gun … so the gun industry ‘lobbied’ (to use the polite word, because the actual words are so gauche) politicians at the state and federal level to pass ‘concealed carry’ legislation making it legal.

And the gun hobbyists hurried to the stores and bought the little lady guns that the gun companies hadn’t been able to sell to the ladies. And now they had another gun that needed kitting out and accessorising.

These gun hobbyists, the 50% … they won’t say this themselves, but the industry says it behind their backs: they collect Barbies. The gun industry calls the guns hobbyists buy ‘Barbie guns’. Because they’re not for self defense, they’re for dressing up with accessories – holsters, bags, sights … now silencers. It’s guys playing with little metal Barbies.

AR-15 Barbie Doll for Guys


So here’s the problem: if you’re a comics fan, and the government decided that there had been too many people dressed as the Joker killing people (a thing that has happened at least twice), and so there should be background checks on people buying Batman comics, you’d think that was a ridiculous, impractical infringement of your legal rights, and wasn’t addressing the real problem. You would say, and you’d be right, ‘wait, just because I like Batman comics doesn’t mean I want to dress as the Joker and kill people’.

Then again … if the comics industry was killing 30,000 people a year, including 20,000 suicides, then I’d like to think that the comics companies and comic shops and comics fans would agree there was a problem, not spend millions ‘lobbying’ politicians so it became illegal for doctors to ask someone with suicidal thoughts if they had comics in their house.

The gun industry wants to keep making money, and with a saturated market made up of obsessive hobbyists, it has to push its customers ever further down the road of owning a massive bunker full of military grade weapons. Smith and Wesson, whose sales have collapsed recently, bought Gemtech, one of the biggest makers of silencers, earlier this year. For no reason at all except they want to sell a silencer to everyone who ever bought one of their guns. And … amazing coincidence, soon after Smith and Wesson did that, politicians they’d given money to started talking about making silencers legal.

And so the marketing of guns now is pushing the customer base deep into psychotic loony territory. With comics, you know you’ve crossed a line when you can reel off facts about the Earth-2 Hawkman that may not apply to the Rebirth version because the New 52 didn’t establish what happened to the post-Crisis status quo. With guns, it’s that there are now guns seriously marketed as ‘the best one to survive the zombie apocalypse’. Do people seriously think it will happen? That it might? Perhaps not zombies, but the exact threat doesn’t matter. Gun companies stoke inchoate paranoia that someone, some nebulous alien threat, is coming for gun owners, their families and their stuff.

Survivalist horders make for good repeat business. The business model of the gun industry has become to take their existing customers and to literally give them a bunker mentality.

There are two ways to fight it:

1. Get to the customers. Treat it like smoking, drink driving, seatbelts. Explain that they’re harming themselves and they’re handing their money over to an industry that doesn’t care about that. Make it clear that it won’t make them cool rebel Malboro Men, rather the opposite. Use the industry phrase ‘Barbie guns’ a lot.

2. Make it unprofitable for the gun industry to keep doing this. Make it easy for the families of the 30,000 people killed by guns every year to sue. If it was established that the industry bears some legal liability, then like the cigarette industry, like the alcohol industry, like the car industry, then the gun industry would be forced to start changing its marketing and product design.

AV Minus – A Proposal for Electoral Reform

The problems with the First Past the Post system are well-known and well-rehearsed. The main issue is that a candidate can win with a tiny overall share of the vote, if the opposition is split. The more competition, in fact, the fewer votes you need to win. One of the features of FPTP is that it magnifies slight advantages, leading to a point that, well, as we saw in this year’s election, the winning party can win more than half the seats on only around a third of the vote. For all the talk of hung parliaments and minority governments, the result in 2010 was a fluke, like a coin landing on its side, and the chance of it happening again was always remote. FPTP wasn’t ‘designed’ to create majority governments out of not very much, but it’s always tended to. John McCain was crushed and humiliated by Barack Obama in the US Presidential election of 2004, but got a higher share of the vote than Tony Blair’s Labour Party when it won its massive 1997 landslide in the UK.
The alternative system on offer, though, was soundly rejected in a referendum nearly five years ago. This was AV, and something like it is used in a number of places around the world. The basic principle is that you vote for someone, but you register a second preference. If all goes to plan, the ‘winner’ is someone acceptable to most people who voted.

Psephologists have spent a great deal of time talking through the pros and cons of AV. The arguments tended to be dry and technical. What I’ve not seen discussed very often is that a big problem with AV is that it’s based on the premise that the problem with current British politics is that there are just so many great parties and candidates that it’s really unfair to expect people to pick just one.

Is that how things feel to you? If you just voted in the UK elections, did you stand with your pen poised thinking it was so hard choosing between so many awesome, talented and inspirational candidates, and somehow deeply unjust that you only got to vote once? Did you think ‘gosh, I wish I had two votes, here, this is like trying to pick between Sgt Pepper and Revolver?’

I humbly suggest that the ballot paper did not resemble the dessert menu at the Ritz, and that instead you went: ‘Seriously? In a country of sixty four million people, this shower is the best we can do?’ That looking at the potential Prime Ministers – there were two – that your reaction wasn’t ‘my god, Ed and Dave are both titans among men’ and you probably didn’t watch the televised Leaders’ Debate, and conclude ‘I firmly believe every one of those people could lead the country to a new golden age’.

You don’t have to outrace the lion in a British general election, do you? To win, David Cameron had to look more Prime Ministerial than Ed Miliband. This is an almost proverbially easy task. In fact, I suggest that from now on we use the ‘miliband’ as a unit of measurement for whether a candidate has reached the absolute minimum level of viability. Think of it as a line on a graph, and if you’re above that line, you can be treated as a serious candidate because you are at least ‘not unelectable’. Use it in a sentence as you might use ‘rubicon’ or ‘jump the shark’. ‘Andy Burnham obviously crosses the miliband, but does he have what he takes to win in Scotland?’; ‘Jeb Bush’s statements on Iraq this week have left people wondering if he’s sinking below the miliband’; ‘the televised debate will include all the candidates above the miliband’.
So what’s the solution? Here’s my proposal, a system I call ‘AV Minus’.

  • 1. A voter gets two votes.
  • 2. As now, they place an X next to the candidate they want.
  • 3. As with AV, they also place a second vote. This, though, they mark ‘FO’, and this stands for ‘FOrgive me, sir or madam, I’m sure you are a lovely person, but I do not wish you to represent me in the House of Commons’.
  • 4. Candidates get one vote added for every X, and one vote taken off for every FO. The winner of the election is simply the candidate with the highest net total of votes.
  • 5. Here’s the best bit: when the returning officer declares the result, he turns to the candidate with the most FOs, raises two fingers at him and snarls ‘FUCK. OFF’. That person then has to walk out of the hall, like the losing contestant on The Weakest Link.

See? It’s brilliant, isn’t it?

Consider the following scenarios:

  • 1. You are a Labour supporter in a constituency where the Conservatives are ahead, but UKIP are nipping at their heels. Labour are a close third, but you really, really don’t want UKIP to win. Under FPTP, you have to vote Tory. Under AV-, you can vote Labour and go FO UKIP. The Tory may still win, but you wouldn’t have voted for them. And there may be scenarios, in fact, where the UKIP and the Tories FO each other to such an extent that Labour win.
  • 2. You’re a Tory in Wales. No, you actually live there, you’re not on holiday. It happens. You’re resigned to the fact your lot won’t win, but you don’t want Labour to win. But they’ve got a massive majority in your constituency … well, you can vote tactically: vote for whoever’s second and FO the Labour candidate. That’s basically two votes against Labour.
  • 3. You really, really hate Tories or the SNP. You’re indifferent about who wins, as long as it’s not them.
  • 4. George Galloway. I mean, seriously. Shouldn’t there be a constitutional mechanism that lets us tell him to fuck off?

It is possible, of course, to get the most FOs with this system but still win the election. This isn’t a problem – the MP knows that they won, but also that a great swathe of his constituents actively loathe him.
The only downside I see is that people might forget to put down the X, or that they might just endlessly find themselves scrawling FO next to all the candidates. Or that joke candidates might seek la lanterne rouge.
We are in an era of British politics where the electorate need a degree of damage control. We need to be able to say ‘no, not him’. Instead of the rather grubby spectacle we saw this time of parties saying ‘vote for us, that way you won’t be voting for them’, you can vote against someone without endorsing their rival.

Tony Benn always used to say that the mark of a good electoral system wasn’t that it allowed you to vote someone in, it was that it allowed you to vote them out. That has always been the problems with AV, AV+, PR and related proposed reforms – they’ve always been set up in a way that would create mushy coalitions, fosters a lukewarm centrism. There’s that old joke ‘don’t vote, it only encourages them’ – well, AV Minus squares that circle, allows you to go ‘for god’s sake, not him’. And, in the end, don’t we want an electoral system that creates stable governments and humiliates wankers?