Books and articles that attack firearms ownership and the Second Amendment are usually clumsy and tedious recitations of often-repeated lies and misinformation, but they are frequently entertaining. For obscure reasons many anti-gun types, who might otherwise be perfectly intelligent and rational people, seem to become completely unhinged when discussing anything to do with guns and/or the Second Amendment, which is entertaining right there. Also, the authors usually haven’t got a clue as to which end of the gun the bullet comes out of, and ignorance can also be very entertaining. A flagrant example would be a breathless report I read many years ago about the actress Sharon Stone’s “fully automatic double-barreled shotgun,” something I would give a lot to see. A more recent example would be the congressman who worked himself into a frenzy on television following the Orlando terrorist attack, stating in horrified tones that an AR15 is capable of shooting four hundred rounds a minute! Ah, no, counselor, nowhere near; go do your homework.
On the other side, books and articles that support firearms ownership and the Second Amendment are frequently clumsy and tedious recitations of well-known facts, and that’s where Joyce Lee Malcolm’s Guns and Violence: The English Experience (Harvard University Press) stands apart.
Joyce Lee Malcolm is a Pulitzer Prize-nominated author, historian and constitutional scholar, professor of law at George Mason University, former professor of history at Bentley University, fellow of the Royal Historical Society… Frankly, the list of her academic accomplishments and honors is too long to record in full. What Ms. Malcom has done with her book is bring a scholar’s dispassionate objectivity and relentless research to an otherwise emotionally charged subject. Not only has she has done it in a refreshingly clear and well-written manner, but she has explored an area that as far as I know no one else has ever written about: the sad decline and eventual loss of the Merrie Olde paradise that was once possibly the most peaceful nation on earth.
Great Britain was for many years, many centuries, a remarkably peaceful country, the kind of place where what little crime there was rarely involved violence of any kind, and violent crime with a firearm was almost non-existent. Many people in Great Britain went armed every day, and not only was there almost no violent crime whatsoever, and even less armed crime, but an unarmed police force relied on an armed public to help them maintain law and order. In a notable example of how an armed populace is a benefit to society as a whole, in one of the rare gun crimes to occur during that peaceful era (a robbery known as the “Tottenham Outrage;” the fact that the incident was given a name shows you just how infrequent such crimes were), unarmed police officers “borrowed four [handguns] from passersby while other armed citizens fulfilled their legal obligation and joined the chase” [emphasis mine].
The industrial revolution was indirectly responsible for the gradual erosion of the traditional right of British citizens to keep and bear arms. The sudden explosion of wealth among the nouveau riche owners of new industries, from coal mines to factories, came at the expense of large numbers of workers who were paid barely living wages to labor in subhuman conditions, and even larger numbers of displaced countrymen who had no work at any salary under any conditions and who congregated in urban areas.
But it is a little too glib and easy to place the blame solely on the inventive fruits and greed of gifted entrepreneurs, and the resentment of the starving poor. Ms. Malcolm does not follow the following thread (it is not germane to her study), but the loss of rights in Great Britain actually had its genesis in the French Revolution.
The Royal Family, specifically the Prince Regent who eventually became George IV, set a standard for egregious, preposterous, wasteful, and ostentatious hedonism and spending that was imitated by wealthy peers who were in turn aped by well-to-do landed gentry and well-heeled middle classes in a nauseating display of trickledown extravagance. To achieve this, they cultivated an attitude of indifferent disdain for the plight of their less fortunate countrymen, a disdain that evolved quickly into fear whenever the desperate and desperately poor gathered to protest their poverty. As J. B. Priestley pointed out in The Prince of Pleasure and His Regency, the excesses of the French Revolution were still vivid in the minds of those who imagined their wealth and breeding made them somehow so superior to the lower classes that not even sympathy had to be extended, let alone a reasonable working wage. The poor wanted to eat; the rich, remembering the guillotines so recently put to good use in France, wanted to maintain both the status quo and their powdered heads on their pampered shoulders. The stage was set.
Every now and then the poor would gather together or march upon various cities, usually London, to voice their unreasonable desire to eat, and here is a singularly shameful period in the history of a great Empire that is filled with shameful periods and shameful episodes. One of the regular practices of the government at this time—and other times, so many others, both before and since—was to plant undercover agents whose role was to act as provocateurs, either starting fights and violence or whipping the crowds that had gathered for peaceful petition into enough of a frenzy to give government forces an excuse to go in and brutally suppress them. An excellent example of this would be the atrocity known as Peterloo that occurred in 1819, when regular troops (the 15th Hussars), local Yeomanry (equivalent to our National Guard), and constables attacked an unarmed crowd and killed at least eleven people and severely wounded an estimated six hundred, many of them women and children, who had gathered in Manchester to listen to orators tell them they had a right to food. So much, however, for the right of the people to petition their government.
The government justified their savagery by claiming the crowds were armed and dangerous (they were neither), the privileged and well-to-do members of the press dutifully reported what the government told them, the really wealthy read what the press reported and then, trembling in fear, demanded the government do something—something!—to protect them. What easier than to pass meaningless laws to solve a problem that did not exist?
Does all that sound familiar, gentle reader?
Governments have been lying to and manipulating the press for as long as both governments and the press have existed and the process continues unabated to this day in every country civilized enough to have a press that requires manipulation in place of direct intimidation. What is striking about the English example Ms. Malcolm has chronicled is that until the last decade or so, the English press seems never to have bothered to question even the most preposterous claims and outright lies spewed forth by generation after generation of British leaders. Instead, the press dutifully reported the lies as facts and duped generation after generation of readers.
Ms. Malcolm is masterfully objective and non-judgmental; the only ax-grinding she indulges in is an obsession with truth and honesty. You can almost hear her disdain as she chronicles the constant, repetitive dishonesty and manipulation of the British government: [The Secretary of State for the Home Office, Sir David Maxwell…] “…Fyfe was closely questioned about his contention that violent crime had risen sharply. Just two weeks earlier the government had defeated an effort to reinstate corporal punishment for some types of violent crimes by insisting that crime rates were declining.”
If that reminds you of the kind of contradictory gobbledygook you read or hear on the news every day, it’s because lying has always been and always will be a way of life for politicians.
Where Ms. Malcolm’s research is most revealing is in her assessment of the effects of Great Britain’s draconian confiscation and total ban of firearms. For over a century the myth of peaceful Olde England has been carefully perpetuated by a dishonest government (forgive the tautology) and a press eager to collude, even as both shrieked for more and more laws to prevent crimes that were not being committed. Finally, about ten years ago, The London Daily Telegraph (I believe) at last rose to the occasion and broke a story about the Home Office and the police consistently underreporting incidents of violent crime, and almost a decade later broke another story showing that even the government’s admission of an increase in violent crime was itself underreported. What Ms. Malcolm’s research showed was: “in 1904, before passage of gun restrictions, there were only 4 armed robberies a year in London. By 1991 this had increased 400 times, to 1,600 cases. From 1989 through 1996, armed crime increased by 500 percent at the very time the number of firearms certificate holders decreased by 20 percent.” The Home Office’s admission shows the situation has gotten markedly worse since then.
For the record, current independent tracking of world-wide crime generally, on a per capita basis, puts Great Britain in fourth place, ahead of South Africa (!) and well ahead of the United States, which came in a paltry twenty-second. For violent crime exclusively, according Great Britain’s Daily Mail, the United Kingdom is the most violent country in Europe, with a violent crime rate of 2,034 per 100,000 residents, compared with a rate of 466 per 100,000 for the United States. So much for disarming the law-abiding citizen. So much for peaceful Olde England.
How Great Britain compares to the United States is accentuated by the respective histories of the two countries. Great Britain had no violent crime but was afraid it might occur; their government took away the right of the people to keep and bear arms to defend themselves and violent crime became epidemic. America had violent crime (though, interestingly enough, nowhere near as much as most people imagine), but also had a Second Amendment that prevented the government from taking away the people’s right to self-defense. Today, America’s violent crime rate is lower than it was three decades ago, and the vast percent of the crime it does have is accounted for exclusively by major metropolitan centers with draconian and illegal gun laws, with Chicago, Washington, DC, and Baltimore topping the list.
Two of those cities have had Democratic mayors and governments for over fifty years; Washington, DC has never had a Republican mayor. All three of those Democratically-led cities scream that their violent crime rates are the fault of surrounding states with lax gun laws, but one has to ask why the surrounding states with the lax gun laws don’t also have stratospheric crime rates.
If you have the slightest interest in the truth about gun ownership and violent crime, read Guns and Violence.