Disarming the English

David Wootton

  • To Keep and Bear Arms: The Origins of an Anglo-American Right by Joyce Lee Malcolm
    Harvard, 232 pp, £23.95, March 1994, ISBN 0 674 89306 9

The Thirty-Nine Articles required all Englishmen to practise archery on Sundays. For the Elizabethans bearing arms was a duty, not a right. Few of them were allowed to shoot at anything but targets: all game in the kingdom belonged to the Queen and could only be hunted under licence. Bows and arrows, guns and pistols must normally have been kept at home, but every man carried a knife with which to cut his food, and every gentleman a sword. Fights were common, but the law required you, if attacked, to retreat until your back was against the wall: only then could you kill with impunity. After 1604 one particular weapon was singled out as especially in need of control: the Stabbing Act made it always murder, never manslaughter, to kill someone with a knife. This was the one weapon everyone had to hand.

In America, it is said, there are now more guns than people. Such an armed society is, historically speaking, the norm rather than the exception; but the technology of warfare has transformed the moral and practical problems associated with self-defence. Nobody claims a right to own a personal nuclear deterrent, or even a private heat-seeking missile, though some over-anxious Americans would like to have their own tanks or bazookas. Many would prefer a virtually complete ban on guns. Joyce Malcolm’s book reopens the question of the right to bear arms by pointing out that it was in origin English, and that the English had an unfettered right to arm themselves until 1920 (and, one should add, there was no statutory control over shotguns until 1968).

In 1689, the Bill of Rights presented to William and Mary included, among many rights which were old, one which was new: ‘That the Subjects which are Protestants may have Arms for their Defence suitable to their Condition and as allowed by Law.’ This was the model for the American Bill of Rights of 1791: ‘A well regulated Militia being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed’ Two hundred years later the English have lost their right to bear arms, while Americans have kept theirs and die in large numbers from gunshot wounds. At a time when there are widespread calls for our own Constitution to be reformed, it might seem that this is one right which the English did well, with characteristic carelessness, to mislay. But the licensing of firearms has never been an effective obstacle to the acquisition of guns by criminals, even though, remarkably, English criminals and law-abiding citizens had disarmed themselves voluntarily well before 1920.

The right to bear arms was first and foremost a political right. The experience of military rule in the 1650s persuaded most Englishmen that a king who had his own army would be able to impose taxes without Parliamentary consent. If the people were to be free, the sovereign must be disarmed. But the nation must be able to defend itself against invaders, so a volunteer army made up of county militias must always be prepared to serve. Such an army could be trusted to refuse to obey if ordered to destroy the Protestant religion or the mixed Constitution. A society of armed citizens would be a society of virtuous men, prepared to place public interest before private convenience. This ideal survived through the 18th century (Gibbon served in the Hampshire militia) and into the 19th; it lingers on, perhaps, in the cadet forces of public schools.

Charles II and James II, by contrast, hoped to disarm the militia and replace it by an efficient standing army. Under William III, Parliament was persuaded that a large army was compatible with Parliamentary control of taxation, and England has had both a standing army and representative government ever since. But the militia remained a powerful ideal, thanks to which both the English and the Americans retained the right to bear arms.

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