Fewer Guns in England, but Is There Less Crime and violence?(BOOKS)

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), July 21, 2002 | Go to article overview

Fewer Guns in England, but Is There Less Crime and violence?(BOOKS)


Byline: Richard M. Brown, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES

In recent decades, much scholarship has been devoted to the history of crime and violence in England from the Middle Ages to the present. Joyce Lee Malcolm's lucid volume is a welcome synthesis of such work and the related factor of gunholding. A historian at Bentley College, she is the author of a compelling earlier study, "To Keep and Bear Arms: The Origins of an Anglo-American Right" (1994), to which the present book is an impressive, well-documented sequel.

The first half of "Guns and Violence" treats the long period from the medieval era to 1900. General readers as well as scholars will be especially interested in the second half of the book in which the author deals with the 20th century and the year 2000. The climactic chapter is a telling comparison of the experiences of England and America from the 1950s to the present.

The height of English crime and violence occurred in the Middle Ages and began to decline in the 16th century. Late in the 17th century the autocratic reign of James II resulted in the inclusion of the right to keep and bear arms as an article in the Bill of Rights of 1689. Crime and violence continued to fall in the 18th century and, despite the strain of industrialization, plummeted in the 19th century.

Yet, in 1920 the English government, in effect, took away from the citizenry the right to own guns. From then until the present, the Bill of Rights article on firearms has been a dead letter, existing in name only. What happened? The author shows that from the late-19th century on, the rigorous control and, ultimately, deprivation of civilian guns was zealously pursued by a coalition of civil-service bureaucrats, successive national governments, and the police. A "passive citizenry" and a weak, ineffective parliamentary opposition were no problem for an obsessed Establishment that systematically relieved the people of their centuries-old right to keep and bear arms.

This movement to undermine the arms provision in the Bill of Rights began with the Pistols Act of 1903. Much more drastic was the Firearms law of 1920 whose impact-through secret directives to police chiefs from the Home Office - downgraded the 1689 right to no more than an increasingly restricted privilege. An "ever denser thicket of controls" on privately-owned guns was consolidated in the Firearms Act of 1937. The trend accelerated with 1953 legislation that forbade armed self-defense and in blatant disregard of hallowed English legal tradition shifted the burden of proof on this issue from the government to the people.

Next came a 1967 law greatly limiting the exercise of self-defense. The climax came in 1997 with a "nearly complete ban" on handguns. In support of the handgun prohibition the government resorted to an outright lie in 1996, claiming that crime had fallen from 1992 to 1995 when in fact no such thing had occurred. The specious basis of this duplicity was that there had been a decline, not in crime, but in its rate of increase.

The government's case for the near-abolition of lawful self-defense and the de facto nullification of the right to keep and bear arms was that with the police as their protectors people had no need to defend themselves or use guns. The guarantee was fraudulent. The police had unusually broad powers, and by the 1990s they were aggressively used against law-abiding folk on gun issues. …

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