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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 who desired to arm himself for his own protection."

Two years later, a revised form of the bill was introduced. While Prime Minister Gladstone acknowledged that the problem at issue "was not of such magnitude" as to justify the government pushing forward on this particular bill, he argued that such a law was nevertheless justified if it "could save one life or one human being's eyesight." The bill came under ferocious attack, with mp Hopwood condemning its "disregard of individual liberty," mp Cross complaining that the power it granted to stop and search individuals for handguns was "monstrous," and mp Moulton questioning the wisdom of "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."

Why then was such a law proposed in the first place? An undersecretary at the Home Office explained to his superior that it was required because increasingly Britons were carrying pistols; "even ladies are taking to it." This was apparently not hyperbole. English police were still generally unarmed, but when, in 1909, London police chased across the north of town after payroll robbers, "they borrowed four pistols from passersby while other armed citizens fulfilled their legal obligation and joined the chase."

But that changed radically with the 1920 Firearms Act, the first English law in modern times to restrictively license handguns and rifles and thus an important divide between bobbies borrowing pistols from Londoners out for a walk, and today, where the only civilians carrying pistols are criminals. While I come to the same conclusion as Malcolm about the motives behind the 1920 statute—that the government lied to Parliament when it claimed that the goal of the Firearms Act was to disarm criminals; the actual goal was to prevent an imagined Bolshevik Revolution—I was surprised to see how reliant she was on Colin Greenwood's seminal 1972 Firearms Control: A Study of Armed Crime and Firearms Control in England and Wales and Thomas Jones's Whitehall Diary as sources. Greenwood's book is a fine piece of both history and criminology, but not a primary source. It would have strengthened Malcolm's case had she used more of the primary sources that Greenwood cited. Nor did Malcolm use the Cabinet papers declassified in 1969-70. These provide an overwhelming wealth of evidence for the real intentions behind the Firearms Act.1

The title of Malcolm's book suggests that it is about "guns and violence," yet she examines not just gun-related crimes (e.g., murder, armed robbery) but also property crimes. Malcolm was, I think, attempting to show that introducing firearms in English history did not change the proportion of property crimes to personal crimes. But this point needed to be driven home to clarify why she presented material that otherwise seems tangential to her thesis.

Malcolm's use of crime statistics left me a bit uneasy in places, though she has my sympathies in dealing with a difficult problem. As she points out, English crime statistics for the medieval period are of relatively higher quality than can be found for nearly any nation in continental Europe. Still, even English crime statistics before the sixteenth century are inadequate for anything but an impressionistic interpretation.

Malcolm relies on a variety of studies of medieval English crime rates, all of which seem to be in agreement that homicide rates in thirteenth-century England were ten to twenty times higher than today. Many of these studies are for a particular period and place, dependent on the availability of surviving judicial records. Are they representative of England as a whole?

And if these older records are representative, how accurate are they? Even in the modern era, British crime statistics are terribly misleading. Malcolm quotes the economic historian Howard Taylor as saying that nineteenth- 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." This raises questions about the conclusions that Guns and Violence draws from several centuries of data that are unreliable and probably not even consistently unreliable.

Chapter 7 is by far the most disappointing part of Malcolm's book, though it is likely to be the most noticed as well. I strongly agree with her conclusion—that the availability of guns, if it has an influence on crime rates, is small, and perhaps not in the direction that gun-control advocates assume. Nonetheless, I found the tone of chapter 7 to be at odds with the rest of the book. The first six chapters are a scholarly examination of historical evidence; the seventh chapter reads more like a political argument. There are also a few factual errors in that chapter. While they do not impair the accuracy of Malcolm's conclusions, they are a bit frustrating in an otherwise carefully researched work. Chapter 7 belonged somewhere, but perhaps not here.

The most frustrating aspect of the book, however, is Malcolm's almost complete disregard of the moral component to understanding the nature of guns and violence in the history of England. Malcolm points to the Victorian period as an age "cursed with every ill modern society pegs as a cause of crime—wrenching poverty alongside growing prosperity, teeming slums, rapid population growth and dislocation, urbanization, the breakdown of the working family, problematic policing, and, of course, wide ownership of firearms." She seems to have given no attention to popular morality in understanding how the Victorian era managed to avoid a significant violence problem. I found only one reference in Guns and Violence to the importance of moral values, a summary of a 1948 House of Lords discussion of rising crime, violence, and disrespect for the law.

The morals of the people matter. One of my surprises while researching a book on concealed-weapon laws was the important role that the evangelizing of the South between 1810 and 1840 played in ending the culture of dueling and other forms of violence tied to pre-Christian notions of honor. If killing a person is widely held to be a horrifying act, done only under the most extreme provocation, murder should be infrequent. Malcolm's failure to consider this factor as an influence on violent crime rates is a regrettable oversight. (Of course, the low murder rate in Japan, that most atheist of nations, is a reminder that morals and religion are not necessarily identical.)

Read by itself, chapter 7 is an effective argument against current British gun-control laws. The first six chapters provide a useful overview of the changing nature of personal violence in England from medieval to modern times. While the evidence concerning crime rates contained in Guns and Violence is not overwhelming, it does make a persuasive case that gun availability has not been a strong factor in determining English murder rates. Those who like to believe otherwise will need to respond to the evidence that Malcolm presents.

Clayton E. Cramer has written books about weapons regulation in America, black history, and the Civil War. His most recent book was Concealed Weapon Laws of the Early Republic: Dueling, Southern Violence, and Moral Reform (Praeger, 1999).

1. Malcolm's failure to use the Cabinet papers is especially surprising because at the American Society of Criminology convention in 1997, we were on a panel together at which I presented a paper that made extensive use of these documents, for this very purpose. See www.claytoncramer.com/firear~1.htm.

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