The trouble with lessons from history is that they often involve little actual history.
Sometimes, the history was never there to begin with. Other times, lessons from history are wrong because nobody has bothered to look at the facts.
Where guns are involved, people are beginning to look. Bentley College historian Joyce Malcolm looked deeply at the roots of America's right to arms in a 1994 book published by Harvard University Press, entitled To Keep and Bear Arms: The Origins of an Anglo-American Right. That book explained that the right to arms enshrined in the Constitution's Second Amendment was not merely the product of a "frontier mentality," as some gun-control proponents have suggested, but the outgrowth of a long and well-established English tradition favoring an armed citizenry as a defense against tyranny.
Now professor Malcolm, and Harvard University Press, are back with a book entitled Guns and Violence: The English Experience, which addresses another English connection to American gun rights.
It is a standard observation in American and English debates over gun control that England has strict gun controls and low crime rates, while America has (comparatively) liberal gun laws and higher crime rates. It is usually assumed that there is a cause and effect relationship, with the low crime stemming from the strict gun controls in England, and vice versa in the United States.
This turns out not to be the case. As Malcolm observes, violent crime rates in England, very high in the 14th century, fell more or less steadily for five hundred years, even as ownership of firearms became more common. By the late 19th century, England had gun laws that were far more liberal than are found anywhere in the United States today, yet almost no gun crime, and little violent crime of other sorts. (An 1870 act, which was seldom enforced, required the payment of a small tax for the privilege of carrying, not simply owning, a gun.)
Despite a well-armed populace, Malcolm reports, "statistics record an astonishingly low rate of gun-related violence in the late nineteenth century." How low?
In the course of three years, according to hospital reports, there were only 59 fatalities from handguns in a population of nearly 30 million people. Of these, 19 were accidents, 35 were suicides, and only 3 were homicides 3 an average of one a year.
Despite these rates, which Malcolm is right to call astonishingly low, the British government decided at the turn of the 20th century to begin a program of gun control that would ensure "that nobody except a soldier, sailor, or policeman, should have a pistol at all." The claimed justification was the "enormous" number of handgun injuries.
This effort was initially frustrated by popular resistance, but the first regulatory law in this campaign was passed in 1903, requiring a license for the purchase of a pistol. Such licenses were freely available, though, and citizens remained well enough armed that when (unarmed) London bobbies were chasing a group of armed robbers in 1909, they had no trouble borrowing pistols from passersby, while other armed citizens joined in the chase. Rates of gun violence remained low.
After World War I, the English government got serious. Though fear of crime was (again) claimed as a justification for much more intrusive gun controls despite no increases of any significance, the real motivation -- as historical records make very clear -- was the fear of armed labor unionists, and perhaps even Bolshevik revolution. Though Parliament in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries had seen an armed citizenry as a valuable check on tyranny, by the 20th century the government was determined to disarm the citizenry so as to eliminate any threats to its power.
Because the 1903 act requiring firearm licensing had not resulted in strict limits on gun ownership, the populace was not much threatened by the 1920 Firearms Act. The act met with much less resistance than the early popular resistance to the 1903 law. But the 1920 Firearms Act began the trend toward the near-complete disarmament of the formerly well-armed English citizenry. This disarmament continued by gradual sub silentio changes in administrative policy. For example, in 1938 the government made the unannounced decision that pistol licenses would no longer be issued to individuals who wanted a gun to defend their homes. Additional legislation followed. As Malcolm puts it:
Parliament passed a comprehensive firearms statute that eliminated the right of individuals to be armed. It was the culmination of fifty years of effort by British governments of every political stripe. The announced rationale by the ruling coalition government was, as usual, an increase in armed crime, yet statistics in London show no such increase. . . . Private Cabinet papers make clear that the government was afraid not of crime but of disorder and even revolution, the same fears that had fuelled government control measures in the past.
By 1953, the English were effectively disarmed — and compounding the insult, courts began prosecuting people for previously legal (and even encouraged) acts of violence in defense of persons and property. In the future, only the police were to use violence, and even they tended to be quite lenient toward violent criminals.
In a "coincidence" that will surprise few readers who are familiar with the work of criminologists like John Lott and Gary Kleck, English crime rates almost immediately began a steady rise, for the first time in 500 years. The overall crime rate in England and Wales is now 60 percent higher than in the United States. And it wasn't just crime in general: Gun crimes became far more common as well. As Malcolm notes:
The peacefulness England used to enjoy was not the result of strict gun laws. When it had no firearms restrictions England had little violent crime, while the present extraordinarily stringent gun controls have not stopped the increase in violence or even the increase in armed violence. By opting to deprive law-abiding citizens of the right to keep guns or to carry any article for defence, English government policy may actually be contributing to the lawlessness and violence afflicting its people.
Malcolm is commendably cautious when discussing the connection between stricter English gun laws and higher rates of crime. But at the very least, she has demonstrated that the history of English gun control does not support the commonly made claim that English crime rates were (formerly) lower in England because of stricter gun controls. The rise in English crime has coincided with the growth of governmental intrusiveness where firearms are concerned. The history is entirely consistent with the findings of Lott and Kleck: that disarming honest citizens produces more crime, not less.
What's more, the English experience provides a concrete example of American gun owners' worst fear: A patient political establishment steadily whittling firearms rights away over a period of decades through means both open and covert as circumstances permitted, in order to bring the citizenry under more complete political control. These are lessons worth bearing in mind whenever the English experience is brought up as part of the American gun-control debate.