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Clayton E. Cramer


The Peaceable Kingdom?

Guns and the English

Back in 1994, Harvard University Press published Joyce Lee Malcolm's To Keep and Bear Arms: The Origins of an Anglo-American Right, a splendid examination of how the English Bill of Rights (1689) came to include the right to keep and bear arms. The book was distinguished not only by Malcolm's detailed use of primary sources but also by her willingness to acknowledge uncomfortable facts. Other authors had located the origins of this right in the medieval past, trusting overly much Parliament's claim in the English Bill of Rights to be "vindicating and asserting their ancient rights and liberties." Malcolm very carefully demonstrated that this "ancient right" was, in 1689, actually a fairly recent discovery.

Malcolm's new book is not the tour de force that To Keep and Bear Arms was. There are three distinct topics in Guns and Violence. The first is a history of the right to keep and bear arms, and for the most part, she carries this off well. The second is a history of crime in England, and here Malcolm's treatment has some serious limitations. Her discussion of the the third topic is concentrated in chapter 7, where Malcolm compares England with America and attempts to dismantle the widely held belief that England's supposedly low crime rates are the result of gun-control laws. Unfortunately, that chapter differs considerably from the rest of the book in tone, losing something of the scholarly style of the first six chapters.

Malcolm is strongest when she demonstrates that the right to keep and bear arms enjoyed widespread support in England until recently, even among the upper classes, who should have worried the most about armed peasants. In 1893, a bill was introduced in Parliament to restrict ownership of handguns "less than fifteen inches long" to reduce gun accidents. Members of Parliament pointed out that the government's own figures showed there simply wasn't a serious problem; moreover, they said, the proposed legislation "attacked the natural right of everybody ...

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