- The Washington Times - Sunday, July 21, 2002

By Joyce Lee Malcolm
Harvard University Press, $28, 340 pages, charts

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 impactthrough 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.
To hold down costs England was gradually stripped of police in both urban and rural areas. By 1999 more than 70 percent of rural communities were unpoliced, and London had only one police officer per 290 citizens compared to a one-to-161 ratio in New York City. In 1995 the English were at greater risk of assault, burglary, and robbery than Americans. Violent crime in England doubled in the 1990s, burdening the English with an overall crime rate that was 60 percent higher than in America while during the same decade the American crime rate went down.
Although less frequent than in the United States, murder in England was not only increasing but significantly undercounted in comparison to America. Contradicting a trend of three decades, America was now a safer place to live than England.
All of this produced a sad decline in the quality of English life. In her books, the author provides an example reminding one of the classic novel and film, "A Clockwork Orange," that depicted a future in England ravaged by ruffians. Her example is the harrowing case of one Tony Martin who had already suffered repeated incursions at his farm when in 1999 two hardened burglars broke into the house.
Catching them in the act of looting his possessions, Martin shot both, wounding one and killing the other. Martin had been burglarized so often that he gave up on the police and on the fatal evening put his trust in his own illegally-held shotgun. Despite testimony that the underworld had put out a 60,000-pound contract on him, Martin tried for murder was sentenced to life in prison.
After a public outcry and disclosure that two jurors were intimidated by fear of criminal retaliation, an Appeal Court reduced Martin's offense to manslaughter and slated him for early release but not before the surviving burglar had already been set free. Martin's ordeal bore out in a 1997 study showing England was tied for first place among 11 industrial states in the rate if criminal victimization. Had Martin been residing in France, Germany, or America he would not have been charged with murder.
In her incisive chapter comparing the English case to the American experience in the second half of the 20th century, Joyce Lee Malcom agrees with John Lott and other scholars who hold that the more guns possessed by the American people the less crime there is. The American debate on this issue continues, but in England it is just beginning.
The author sums up the English situation: Its law-abiding citizens "have been effectively disarmed of all weapons for nearly fifty years," had had their excercise of self-defense "severely circumscribed," are at the mercy of wholly inadequate law enforcement, and find themselves afflicted by a judicial system reluctant to incarcerate those offenders that police are "able to apprehend." In short, a deeply entrenched but badly flawed policy provides "only minimal deterrence" to the lawless. "The result," concludes Malcom, is a reversal of four centuries of increasing English civility by "a rate of violent crime soaring to record levels."

Richard M. Brown is a scholar and writer in Oregon.

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