Opinion: Carolina Critic

No. 119: Guns and Violence: Malcolm Disarms Britain

Guns and Violence: The English Experience by Joyce Lee Malcolm, Harvard University Press, 2002, 328 pp., $28.

Joyce Lee Malcolm’s new book is not the masterpiece that was her previous book, To Keep and Bear Arms: The Origins of an Anglo-American Right. Still, there is much to commend, and much to be learned from it.

Malcolm’s strongest work here is her examination of the legal history of the right to keep and bear arms, the transformation of English law concerning the use of deadly force, and how British society has changed from supporting that right to actively opposing it. Not that many decades ago, gun ownership enjoyed widespread support in Britain; gun control was a distinctly minority position.

In 1893, the government proposed limiting ownership of handguns “less than fifteen inches long,” ostensibly to reduce gun accidents. Members of Parliament pointed out that the government’s own figures showed there simply wasn’t a serious problem, and “it attacked the natural right of everybody who desired to arm himself for his own protection…” Two years later, a revised form of the bill, again concerned about gun accidents, received an even more ferocious scolding. MP Hopwood condemned its “disregard of individual liberty.” MP Moulton criticized “interfering with such a large number of people” in the hopes of reducing “an accident list which amounted to something like eight or nine cases a year.”

Malcolm explains that bureaucrats in the Home Office justified such a proposal because Britons were carrying pistols, “even ladies are taking to it.” Indeed, and apparently frequently. London police were still unarmed in 1909, when they chased payroll robbers across the north end of London. Along the way, these unarmed Bobbies “borrowed four pistols from passersby while other armed citizens fulfilled their legal obligation and joined the chase.”

Malcolm’s use of historical crime statistics is less persuasive because of the incomplete, and inconsistent nature of the data. Trying to use medieval crime statistics is a task fraught with difficulty; we should admire her willingness to make the attempt, even if the results are less than satisfying.

As Malcolm shows, violence in Britain had been in decline since guns became common in the late medieval period. Even after guns became common by the 15th century, violence seemed to be somewhat in decline. By Victorian times, when even handguns, could be, and were, purchased over the counter by any adult, murder rates had fallen to levels that would make any American big-city mayor dance with joy.

While correlation does not establish causality, Malcolm’s necessarily impressionistic evidence suggests that if gun availability causes violence, it cannot be a strong factor. Only in the last few decades, as the British government has adopted the most stringent gun control laws in the Western world, has their violence problem increased. As I was writing this review, the Manchester Guardian reported that regular police foot patrols now included automatic weapons.

Though I doubt that the historical crime statistics that Malcolm has compiled will persuade many people about the value of gun control as a crime control measure, it should still provoke discussion of the question. At a minimum, the evidence that she has assembled suggests that if there is a connection between gun availability and violence in Britain, the link is not in the direction that gun control advocates, and most Britons, assume.

The best case that gun-control advocates can make, based on the historical crime statistics that Malcolm has gathered, is either that the medieval violent-crime statistics greatly exaggerate Merry Olde England’s problems, or that the British government for the last two centuries has covered up 90 percent 95 percent of modern murder victims. To Malcolm’s credit, she points out some possible problems with the data from the last century or so, quoting the economic historian Howard Taylor that even 19th century English murder statistics are suspect. Many murders may not have been reported in some jurisdictions “[b]ecause the discovery of a suspicious death and its subsequent investigation and prosecution could make a large dent in a police authority budget…” It is possible that the apparent improvement in murder rates is far less impressive than it appears for this reason. I think few historians or criminologists would want to claim that 19th century undercounting of murders explains a two-orders-of-magnitude drop in murder rates.

The evidence on crime rates contained in Guns and Violence makes a persuasive case that gun availability has not been a strong factor in determining English murder rates. Those who would like to believe otherwise will need to respond to the evidence that Malcolm presents.