Why I ..believe guns do not increase violence

June 21, 2002

Gun control advocates have praised the English model, where the toughest arms restrictions of any democracy are credited with producing a low level of violent crime.

But the historical record contradicts that assumption. When there were no restrictions on guns, England had an astonishingly low level of armed crime. Between 1890 and 1892 there were only three handgun homicides in a population of 30 million. In 1904 there were just four armed robberies in London, then the largest city in the world. Restrictions began in 1920 and by 1954, five centuries of increasing civility were over. Violent crime has been rising ever since. Despite a handgun ban in 1997, violent crime doubled between 1997 and 2001, and in the two years after the ban, handgun crime rose by 40 per cent.

Your chances of getting mugged in London are now six times greater than in New York. English rates of robbery and burglary are far higher than America's and 53 per cent of English burglaries occur while occupants are at home as opposed to 13 per cent in the US, where burglars admit to fearing armed home owners more than the police.

The 1920 Firearms Act required a chief of police to certify that a gun owner had a good reason for owning a weapon and was a fit person to have it. Over the years, secret Home Office instructions to police - classified until 1989 - narrowed the criteria until, in 1969, police were advised that "it should never be necessary for anyone to possess a firearm for the protection of his house or person".

The 1953 Prevention of Crime Act was far more sweeping, making it a crime to carry any article "made, adapted, or intended" for an offensive purpose "without lawful authority or excuse". Any article carried for defence automatically became an offensive weapon. Individuals found with such items were guilty until proven innocent.

MPs expressed concern about an approach to crime that the government conceded was "drastic". An MP from Northern Ireland told of a woman employed by Parliament who had to cross a lonely heath on her route home and had armed herself with a knitting needle. She had been able to drive off a youth who tried to snatch her handbag. Was it to be an offence to carry a knitting needle?

The attorney-general insisted that the public should be discouraged "from going about with offensive weapons in their pocketsI it is the duty of society to protect them". But another MP pointed out: "There are many places where society cannot get, or cannot get there in timeI It is not very much consolation that society will come forward a great deal later, pick up the bits, and punish the violent offender."

Lord Saltoun warned: "I do not think any government has the rightI to deprive people for whom they are responsible of the right to defend themselves. Unless there is not only a right but also a fundamental willingness among people to defend themselves, no police force, however large, can do it."

The present push to ban replica weapons and to stop and search ever greater numbers of people is indicative of government policies that have gone badly wrong. "Discourage self-help," A. V. Dicey, one of the London School of Economics's first academics, cautioned in the 19th century, "and loyal subjects become the slaves of ruffians. Over-stimulate self-assertion, and for the arbitrament of the courts you substitute the decision of the sword or the revolver."

The government has chosen to discourage self-help to the point of leaving law-abiding Englishmen well on their way to becoming the slaves of ruffians. Weapons are dangerous but leaving personal protection to the police is also dangerous, and ineffective.

Joyce Malcolm is senior adviser, MIT security studies programme, and author of Guns and Violence: the English Experience , published this month by Harvard University Press.

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