It was inevitable, given the success of J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series, that the books would be scrutinized for hidden meanings and allegorical significance. Critics have argued, with varying degrees of plausibility, that the Harry Potter books take stands on everything from gay rights to EU hegemony. But there has been little discussion of the political message that runs through the core of the fifth book, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix : Harry Potter is against gun control.

Discusses key plot developments in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

As Order of the Phoenix begins, Harry and his cousin are attacked by dementors, the soul-sucking creatures employed by the Ministry of Magic as prison guards. Harry uses the wand he carries in his pocket to drive off the dementors, saving his cousin's life and his own. Minutes later, he receives a message from the Ministry's Improper Use of Magic Office, informing him that he has violated the Decree for the Reasonable Restriction of Underage Sorcery1, and that Ministry representatives will be arriving shortly to confiscate and destroy his wand.

The parallels with the legal environment of contemporary Britain are obvious:

In August 1999, Tony Martin, a 55-year-old Norfolk farmer living alone in a shabby farmhouse, awakened to the sound of breaking glass as two professional burglars burst into his home. He had been robbed six times before but, like 70 percent of rural English villages, his had no police presence. He sneaked downstairs with a shotgun and shot at the intruders. Martin received life in prison for killing one burglar, 10 years for wounding the second, and 12 months for having an illegal shotgun.2

Harry himself is called to a disciplinary hearing at the Ministry of Magic, where the charges against him are reluctantly dropped on grounds of self-defense. In the real world Harry might not have been so lucky- the 1953 Prevention of Crime Act made it illegal for British civilians to carry, while in a public place, any article "made, adapted, or intended" for an offensive purpose- a standard that would apply to as surely to a magic wand as to a handgun.

The idea that private individuals must be able to defend themselves is expressed throughout the book in the Hogwarts students' conflict with the new Defence Against the Dark Arts teacher, Professor Umbridge. Umbridge, also the sadistic High Inquisitor of the Ministry of Magic, teaches Defense Against the Dark Arts from a strictly theoretical perspective. When students complain that they are not learning practical self-defense skills, Umbridge answers that they should not need to defend themselves- the Ministry will see to their safety: "The Ministry of Magic guarantees that you are not in danger from any Dark wizard."

Similarly, British police were once instructed that "it should never be necessary for anyone to possess a firearm for the protection of his house or person." The problem, in Harry Potter's world as in life, is that the authorities are not always around when protection is needed.

In Harry Potter's case the authorities are eventually forced to acknowledge the threat posed by the return of Lord Voldemort, and the Ministry's policies finally change:

"We urge the magical population to remain vigilant. The Ministry is currently publishing guides to elementary home and personal defense that will be delivered free to all Wizarding homes within the coming month."
But by this time Harry’s godfather, Sirius Black, has already been killed.

If Lord Voldemort were the only threat to Harry's safety it could be argued that Order of the Phoenix makes a case only for a strong national defense and aggressive intelligence gathering- but it is revealed late in the book that it was Umbridge herself, an official of the Ministry of Magic, who sent the dementors that attacked Harry. Rowling thus appears to embrace the most extreme argument for an individual right to possess weapons- that those weapons may be required in defense against one's own government.

Clearly the Harry Potter books are not intended as a deliberate allegory on any particular subject, and Rowling has for the most part avoided comment on the political implications of her novels. They are, after all, children's entertainment. Still, in the course of writing seven volumes about a parallel world it is inevitable that some of the author's judgements about our own world will have found their way into the text. What is not clear is how many of the millions of children reading Rowling's books will pick up on those subtexts, and what the impact on their own ideas will be.

1. The Decree prohibits underage wizards from using magic outside the supervised environment of Hogwarts. It could therefore be construed as nothing more than a reasonable age limit, but I think that younger readers will tend to see the issue as "Harry defended himself and got in trouble for it"- which is the situation adults face in contemporary Britain.

2. The distinctive features of the Martin case are not especially relevant- a further example may help make the point:

In 1994, an English homeowner, armed with a toy gun, managed to detain two burglars who had broken into his house, while he called the police. When the officers arrived they arrested the homeowner for using an imitation gun to put someone in fear.
Both examples are taken from a column by Joyce Lee Malcolm, author of Guns and Violence: The English Experience.

Malcolm, Joyce Lee. "Targeting a Myth." 8/25/2004
Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. New York: Scholastic Inc., 2003.

All the legalistic shenanigans involving Harry Potter, Dolores Umbridge and Cornelius Fudge that kaffir describes above are due to the fact that Harry broke the decree on underage wizardry. That is to say, under-age wizards are not allowed to use magic of any kind outside the place where those skills are taught. It was nothing to do with the rules governing the possession of instruments capable of lethal force among the wider wizarding population.

If you have to draw parallels with the real world, then the parallel is to forbid minors from using weapons capable of lethal force. Child armies aside, I do not think there is a country in the world that permits children to use guns. Even the NRA is not that stupid.

J K Rowling has not given us a general ban on adults using wands for causing injury and pain by hexing and cursing. She has given us legislation against use of wands to inflict three, specific unforgivable curses. One is used to kill. Another is to inflict a lot of pain. The third is to impose control over the actions of an individual. Using any one of these will, in the HP universe, bring the perpetrator a life sentence in prison.

JKR's books, therefore permit residents of the HP universe to carry weapons capable of lethal force, but use of lethal force is enough to bring a life sentence in prison.

The equivalent is the situation in North America where citizens are allowed to carry guns, but the law forbids using them to commit murder.

I suspect that readers who uphold the right to bear arms will see support for their viewpoint in any book, while those who believe in gun control will find equally strong support for their viewpoint if they are selective in their reading of this book. Or any book.

That author's comments on defending oneself against government-directed soul-suckers are also misguided. British law permits use of appropriate force in self-defence, as does US law. It is up to the courts to decide what is "appropriate".

In the HP case, Harry used a spell which merely prevents attack without inflicting damage on the soul-sucker. He was charged with breaching the edict on under-age wizardry. It was proved that he was acting in self-defence, and he was acquitted, despite using magic before his 17th birthday.

In the case of Tony Martin, the courts decided that chasing the youths and then shooting them in the grounds of his house, as they ran away was excessive force. The Tony Martin case aroused a great deal of public sympathy, and I think the noder above fails to understand the complexity of the case in presenting it in this simplistic way.

A more common experience in British law is where a householder uses appropriate force, up to and including causing death by shooting, the law enforcement agencies choose not to bring charges against the property owner. Thankfully, such cases are rare. This is more a reflection of the relative infrequency of gun crime in this country, than a reflection of British citizens' inability to defend themselves.

While we are at it, I should say that the text kaffir qotes is a biassed, selective text which attempts to show that law-abiding British citizens need guns in order to defend themselves. The author of that selective text chooses not to mention all the American children who die, or who kill their siblings and friends when playing with parents' weapons. She does not mention the comparative rates of death and injury by shooting in the US compared to the UK. Here, a single death by shooting is so unusual it makes the prime-time national news. In the US, of course, such murders barely make the small print of the local newspaper. They are a commonplace.

I'm going to leave you with a quote from J. K. Rowling. She has never (so far as I can determine) discussed gun control in public, but when asked about the violence and deaths in her books, she gave the following response. I think it shows quite clearly where she stands:

People die, but do you care when they die? Do you absolutely have a sense of how evil it is to take another person's life? Yes, I think in my book you do. I think you do. I think you see that is a horrific thing. I have enormous respect for human life. I do not think that you would read either of the deaths in that book and think, yeah, well, he's gone, off we go. Not at all. I think it's very clear where my sympathies lie. And here we are dealing with someone, I'm dealing with a villain who does hold human life incredibly cheap. That's how it happens: one squeeze of the trigger. Gone. Forever. That's evil. It's a terrible, terrible thing but you're right, I know where I draw the line. Other people will draw the line in a different place and they will disagree with me.

Thank you and good night.

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