England is a favorite subject for advocates of gun control — so long as the discussion never gets beyond a shallow level. It’s true to say that the homicide rate in England is low and that the gun homicide rate is much lower still. We’re told over and over that the U.S. homicide rate is five times that of our cousins across the pond. And that’s where gun control supporters want to leave the discussion — state a simple fact and assume that the conclusion is obvious.
But valid research and conclusions require more effort than repeating sound bites, and a lot of simplistic claims evaporate when we look at the details. One example of doing the necessary hard work is found in the writing of Joyce Lee Malcolm, professor of law at George Mason University. Her book, Guns and Violence: The English Experience, published in 2002 by Harvard University Press studies some six hundred years of homicide rates and weapons control laws in England, showing that assertions about the regulatory efforts being the causative factor in reductions of murders over time lack supporting evidence.
Malcolm starts with England in the Middle Ages, reminding us that commoners were required by law to own and practice with the weapon that became symbolic of English power during the Hundred Years War, especially in the battles of Crécy and Agincourt. Malcolm quotes Barbara Hanawalt’s study that found that “the bow and arrow, a weapon men were required to own, was ‘surprisingly unpopular’ in medieval homicides.’” Oddly enough, this particular law may still be on the books. The Reverend Mary Edwards of Collingbourne Ducis tested that by calling the people of her parish to show up for archery practice in 2010. Barbecue was provided and no punishments imposed for anyone who chose not to participate, so it was all in good humor, though it is reminiscent of the English tradition of ordinary people as the bulwark of liberty.
And that’s a key point throughout Malcolm’s book. The English people were not only allowed to defend themselves from violent attack. Throughout much of the history that Malcolm reviews, they were obliged to assist officers of the monarch in pursuing criminals. Citing William Blackstone and other commentators on English law, Malcolm shows that the common interpretation throughout the centuries prior to the twentieth was to see self-defense as “first among the great and primary rights of mankind.” And each person had the social obligation of “hue and cry,” the duty to aid in the capture of wrongdoers.
All of this changed in the last hundred years. In the late nineteenth century, the groundwork for future restrictions were laid, requiring a license for carrying guns outside the home. Discretion was given to local police in 1920 to decide who would be allowed to own and carry firearms, and in the following decades, law enforcement become increasingly opposed to private possession of weapons. Malcolm cites one debate in the House of Commons in 1953, when Attorney General Lionel Heald declared that
“we ought not to mind discouraging members of the general public from going about with offensive weapons in their pockets, even for their own protection. . . . It is the duty of society to protect them, and they should not have to do that . . . the argument of self-defense is one to which perhaps we should not attach too much weight.”
This was in response to a report about a woman who used a knitting needle to resist a robber’s attempt to steal her handbag.
While one important point to note from Malcolm’s book is that our Second Amendment derives from the older English tradition of personal and collective defense, it’s also necessary to see what she demonstrates throughout, namely that the homicide rate of England declined steadily from the Middle Ages to the modern period, and at no point did efforts by the government over the history that she analyzes show evidence of being responsible. During the twentieth century, homicides rose as more gun control became law, only following in recent decades in a trend that has been global — including here in the United States. And she presents evidence that England’s rates of violent crime other than homicide — rape and assault in particular — have risen, often to rates above what we experience in America.
Guns and Violence: The English Experience is a good book for supporters of gun rights to have in their libraries. It gives solid research to counter the claims of those who wish for more control that England proves the worth of their desires.
The views and opinions expressed in this post are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the position of Guns.com.