Professor Joyce Lee
Malcolm of Bentley College deserves some sort of special prize for taking
on the thankless task of talking sense on a subject where nonsense is
deeply entrenched and fiercely dogmatic. In her recently published book,
"Guns and Violence," she examines the history of firearms,
gun-control laws and violent crime in England. What makes this more than
an exercise in history is its relevance to current controversies over gun
control in the United States.
love to make highly selective international comparisons of gun ownership
and murder rates. But Joyce Lee Malcolm points out some of the pitfalls in
that approach. For example, the murder rate in New York City has been more
than five times that of London for two centuries, and during most of that
time neither city had any gun control laws.
In 1911, New York State instituted one of
the most severe gun-control laws in the United States, while serious
gun-control laws did not begin in England until nearly a decade later. But
New York City still continued to have far higher murder rates than London.
If we are serious about the role of guns and
gun control as factors in differing rates of violence between countries,
then we need to do what Joyce Lee Malcolm does — examine the history of
guns and violence. In England, as she points out, over the centuries
"violent crime continued to decline markedly at the very time that
guns were becoming increasingly available."
England's Bill of Rights in 1688 was quite
unambiguous that the right of a private individual to be armed was an
individual right, independently of any collective right of militias. Guns
were as freely available to Englishmen as to Americans on into the early
Nor was gun control in England a response to
any firearms-murder crisis. Over a period of three years near the end of
the 19th century, "there were only 59 fatalities from handguns in a
population of nearly 30 million people," according to the professor.
"Of these, 19 were accidents, 35 were suicides and only three were
homicides — an average of one a year."
The rise of the interventionist state in
early 20th-century England included efforts to restrict ownership of guns.
After World War I, gun-control laws began restricting the possession of
firearms. Then, after World War II, these restrictions grew more severe,
eventually disarming the civilian population of England, or at least the
law-abiding part of it.
It was during this period of severe
restrictions on owning firearms that crime rates in general, and the
murder rate in particular, began to rise in England. "As the number
of legal firearms have dwindled, the numbers of armed crimes have
risen," Ms. Malcolm points out.
In 1954, there were only a dozen armed
robberies in London but, by the 1990s, there were more than a hundred
times as many. In England, as in the United States, drastic crackdowns on
gun ownership by law-abiding citizens were accompanied by ever greater
leniency to criminals. In both countries, this turned out to be a formula
While England has not yet reached the
American level of murders, it has already surpassed the United States in
rates of robbery and burglary. Moreover, in recent years the murder rate
in England has been going up under still more severe gun-control laws,
while the murder rate in the United States has been going down as more and
more states have allowed private citizens to carry concealed weapons and
have begun locking up more criminals.
In both countries, facts have no effect
whatever on the dogmas of gun-control zealots. The fact that most guns
used to murder people in England were not legally purchased has no effect
on their faith in gun-control laws there, any more than faith in such laws
here is affected by the fact that the gun used by the recent Beltway
snipers was not purchased legally either.
In England as in the
United States, sensational gun crimes have been seized upon and used
politically to promote crackdowns on gun ownership by law-abiding
citizens, while doing nothing about criminals. American zealots for the
Brady bill say nothing about the fact that the man who shot James Brady
and tried to assassinate President Reagan has been out walking the streets