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The Mises Review

Edited and written by David Gordon, senior fellow of the Mises Institute and author of four books and thousands of essays.


Guns and Violence: The English Experience

Joyce Lee Malcolm

3 2002
Volume 8, Number 3


Disarmed  and Wholly Dependent 
Fall 2002
Guns and Violence: The English Experience 
Joyce Lee Malcolm
Harvard University Press, 2002
viii + 340 pgs.

Professor Joyce Lee Malcolm's erudite study has changed my view of gun control. Before reading her book, I was inclined to see control in this way: Leaving aside questions about individual rights, there is an obvious argument that supports allowing people to own firearms. If criminals know that their victims may be armed, they are less likely to attack: guns deter violent crime. The modern state refuses to acknowledge this elementary truth. If people have guns, this allows them to resist the state, and under no circumstances can this be permitted. The need to secure the state outweighs the desire to halt crime.

Malcolm's book has shown me that I radically underestimated the danger of gun control. Her detailed study of British legislation on the topic shows the real aim of the disarmers. They wish to abolish the right to armed self-defense entirely. The point is not only to block armed resistance to the state, as I had previously thought; in addition, everyone is to be made totally dependent on the state for protection.

Some of Malcolm's examples are shocking. In England "[m]erely threatening to defend oneself can also prove illegal, as an elderly lady discovered. She succeeded in frightening off a gang of thugs by firing a blank from a toy gun, only to be arrested for the crime of putting someone in fear with an imitation firearm" (p. 184).

Not even if one's life is in danger can one legally use a weapon. In another case, two men assaulted Eric Butler in a subway, smashing his head and choking him. "In desperation he unsheathed a sword blade in his walking stick and slashed at one of them. . . . The assailants were charged with unlawful wounding but Butler was also tried, and convicted of carrying an offensive weapon" (p. 185).

You can imagine the legal position if someone goes so far as to use a real gun to defend himself. As British law now stands, you cannot even use a gun in your own home to defend yourself against burglars. In a 1999 incident, Tony Martin surprised a professional burglar and his accomplice while they robbed his home. He fired, killing one of them.

Did the government commend Martin for his bravery in confronting the burglars? Quite the contrary, they tried and convicted him for murder. "Thus an English farmer, living alone, has been sentenced to life in prison for killing one professional burglar and ten years for wounding another when the two broke into his home at night" (p. 216). Fortunately, our story has a "happy" ending: the court of appeals reduced his sentence to five years, on grounds of "diminished capacity."

Supporters of gun control, I suspect, will not be moved by these cases. "However unfair it seems to punish someone for defending himself," they will claim, "we have no choice. We must reduce violence in society. The state cannot protect everyone, and curtailment of the right to self-defense will cause innocent people to suffer." But so what? Does not a slogan from a once prominent regime tells us that the common good goes before individual good? If we insist on the outdated ideas of personal rights and responsibilities, we will end up as a Wild West society like the United States, where guns are plentiful and violent crime flourishes. The "horror stories" just recounted took place in England, where as everyone knows, the curbs on private ownership of weapons have caused violent crime to occur far less often than in America. Down with the right to self-defense!"

Malcolm's outstanding book thoroughly demolishes the case for gun control just sketched. She proceeds by a learned study of violent crime in England, from the Middle Ages to the present. In her survey, a constant theme emerges. As guns became more prevalent, violent crime decreased. This trend culminated in the nineteenth century, when death by murder was rare but guns were widespread. The seizure of guns during the twentieth century has been accompanied by a marked increase in violent crime. At present some types of violent crime are more common in England than in America. As usual, the statists have their facts exactly backward.

Often people think of English medieval life as relatively calm and peaceful, but in Malcolm's view this is a myth. "Medieval England was boisterous and violent, more so than court records reveal. . . . This high rate of homicide and violent crime existed when few firearms were in circulation" (p. 33).

Malcolm's interest in the Middle Ages is not confined to her primary theme of the relation between guns and violence. She introduces another theme that will concern her throughout the book: the status of the right to self-defense. During this period, custom and law established the right of individuals to resist violence directed against them. In some instances, a person who killed his assailant stood immune from criminal penalty. Our author here as always argues convincingly, but I am surprised that she does not cite St. Thomas Aquinas on killing in self-defense and its limits. Suffice it to say that his discussion does not altogether support her account of the medieval situation.

I have space only for a few highlights from Malcolm's detailed narrative. The Tudor and Stuart periods, "this era in which firearms first came into common use in everyday life as well as for the citizen militia . . . in which the Englishman's right to have 'arms for his defence' was proclaimed, also witnessed a sharp decline in violent homicide" (pp. 62–63).

Developments in the eighteenth century should by now come as no surprise. "[A]t the very time that the individual right to be armed was becoming well established and guns were replacing earlier weapons, the homicide rate continued its precipitous decline" (pp. 88–89).

Readers will not earn a reward for correctly guessing Malcolm's conclusions about the nineteenth century. Once again, the number of guns increased while violent crime declined. "The nineteenth century ended with firearms plentifully available while rates of armed crime had been declining and were to reach a record low" (p. 130).

So far, we have a vast example of an inductive argument. Increases in the prevalence of guns have always accompanied decreases in violent crime. Does this not strongly suggest that guns in private hands deter crime? The twentieth century, especially its latter half, gives us a chance to test our induction, since ownership of guns during that period came under strict control. If it turns out that violent crime increased, then as Hume once remarked, "I need not complete the syllogism; you can draw the conclusion yourself."

And of course violent crime did increase. "Scholars of criminology have traced a long decline in interpersonal violence since the late Middle Ages until an abrupt and puzzling reversal occurred in the middle of the twentieth century . . . a statistical comparison of crime in England and Wales with crime in America, based on 1995 figures, discovered that for three categories of violent crimes—assaults, burglary, and robbery—the English are now at far greater risk than Americans" (pp. 164–65).

Gun control advocates, faced with these facts, will at once begin to yammer uncontrollably, "a correlation is not a cause." Indeed it is not; but in this instance, a strong correlation holds in two ways: when guns increase in number, violent crimes decrease, and when guns decrease, violent crimes increase. Further, a plausible causal story explains the correlation: the prospect of armed resistance deters criminals. This is about as good as an inductive argument gets. But I do not anticipate that those who wish to take away the right to self-defense will alter their position. They aim to make everyone totally dependent on the all-powerful state. 

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