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News From the Front

January 3, 2012

"THE SIEGE OF SIDNEY STREET"

An Anti-Gun Anniversary Ominously Observed

 On the first anniversary of the tragedy in Tucson, we look back to another incident of gun violence that galvanized a nation. Winston Churchill was Home Secretary in Prime Minister H.H. Asquith's government on 3 January 1911 when he received word that a group of heavily armed "anarchists," who had earlier shot and killed three policemen, were now trapped in a house in the East End of London at 100 Sidney Street. After ordering in a detachment of Scots Guards, Churchill raced to the crime scene himself. When the building caught fire, Churchill gave the order to let it burn. “I thought it better to let the House burn down,” he later wrote to the Prime Minister,“ than spend good British lives in rescuing those ferocious rascals.”

The Siege of Sidney Street became a media event in Great Britain. Postcards of it were sold in large numbers and the firefight was even filmed and screened as an early newsreel in cinemas.

Churchill came in for criticism from both parties for his actions that day. Many of his fellow Liberals rebuked him for allowing the anarchists to die in the flames. Former-Conservative Prime Minster Arthur Balfour famously rebuked Churchill for his very presence at the scene, acerbically remarking at a later House of Commons inquiry: "He was, I understand, in military phrase, in what is known as the zone of fire - he and a photographer were both risking valuable lives. I understand what the photographer was doing but what was the Right Honourable Gentleman doing?"

Winston Churchill showed no tolerance for civilians bearing arms. Certainly guns were a part of his world; Churchill was a trained professional soldier and a skilled huntsman and, in his lifetime, did on occasion kill with a gun. Churchill knew firsthand what a gun was meant to do. He also knew, even more keenly, what weapons in the wrong hands can and will do.

Modern British history offers few incidents of armed civilians shooting civilians. Even today, The Siege of Sidney Street remains something of an anomaly for Great Britain. How Churchill would have responded to the issue of gun control as it plays out presently in America is impossible to say but not difficult to surmise. Winston Churchill would never have tolerated the fetishization of unlimited guns as a Constitutional right. "Nobody keeps armaments going for fun," Churchill once observed. "They keep them going for fear."

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