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.

When the Bill of Rights gave Protestants (Catholics were assumed to be agents of a foreign power) the right to bear arms ‘suitable to their condition’ it was protecting the gentry’s monopoly of sword-wearing. Gentlemen continued to wear swords in public places until the 1780s. They were asked to leave them behind when they entered the Assembly Rooms at Bath, but normally wore them to the theatre: a nimble thief once stole the Duke of Cumberland’s sword as he was on his way to see a play. If you wanted to kill someone a sword was the best weapon to use. As the streetbrawls of the 17th century were replaced by the organised duels of the 18th-century code of honour, swords gave way to pistols. The average duel, however, would not have been out of place in an episode of Blackadder. The protagonists stood twenty yards apart, each carrying two pistols. They took turns to shoot. In two hundred duels, in which nearly eight hundred shots must have been fired, 14 men were killed and 33 wounded. Pistols, over any but the shortest distance, were almost completely ineffectual.

In 18th-century England, guns were used for duelling, hunting, crime and, above all, self-defence. ‘I cannot now stir a mile from my own house after sunset without one or two servants with blunderbusses,’ wrote Horace Walpole in 1782. A footpad or a highwayman might be round any turn in the road. Highwaymen were proud to carry pistols because the pistol, like the sword, was a mark of status, but the pistols they carried were close-quarter weapons, to be thrust in through a coach window. The blunderbuss, too, was hopelessly inaccurate, as likely to kill the highwayman’s horse as its rider. The problem with both pistols and muskets was that they had to be loaded by ramming powder and shot down the muzzle. In 1764, a pawnbroker who shot and killed a man trying to climb into his house was found guilty of murder: he had called to his wife for his musket and powder, which meant that he had had plenty of time to contemplate less drastic methods of defending his property. With a smooth-bore weapon the process of loading could be relatively speedy, but the weapon was inevitably inaccurate. In the 18th century, soldiers fired when they could see the whites of the enemy’s eyes (at forty paces, perhaps). They fired in the general direction of the enemy: the arched path of the bullet made it difficult to allow for distance, and the inaccuracy of the guns made it pointless, in any case, to aim at individuals. With a rifled weapon, on the other hand, there was some point in aiming, but reloading was slow. The first major breakthrough was the introduction, by the Americans, during the War of Independence, of the Kentucky rifle: its bullet was wrapped in greased leather so that it would slip down the grooves of the barrel. By the 1830s, mass-produced revolvers, Colts for example, were widely available, but these were still muzzle-loaded and smooth-barrelled.

It was not until the 1850s that modern killing machines came on the market. The key breakthrough was the invention of the breechloading metal cartridge, which made rifled weapons easy to load. Soon Smith and Wesson revolvers and Enfield rifles made rapid, accurate fire possible for the first time. If the argument against gun ownership is that guns are too dangerous to be entrusted to individuals who may be mad or bad, then 1850 would seem to be the date at which a modern advocate of gun control would have felt obliged to begin speaking out against the right to bear arms. This is the moment when the right to carry a gun became qualitatively different from the right to wear a sword.

But the last highwayman was active in 1831; the last gentleman to be killed in a duel in England died in 1852. Swords were no longer worn, except on ceremonial occasions. Thus the English were already disarming themselves as the new technology, which might have caused them to question the right to bear arms, was becoming available. The 19th century saw a steady fall in violent crime, despite the growth of cities and slums. Dr Watson had a revolver only because he was a former military man, and, even in Holmes’s company, he rarely needed it. Victorians would have been as frightened as we would be to find ourselves alone at night on the dangerous streets of the London of Defoe and Richardson, or the Atlanta and New York of today.

What brought safety to the streets of the English city? It is worth pausing over this question, because we tend to assume that urbanisation and commercial growth, combined with poverty and unemployment, breed violent crime. But if this was true in the 18th century, it was not so in the 19th. In explaining this paradox, scholars seem prepared to give some credit to the development of the police, none to the substitution of the prison for the scaffold. Yet it hardly seems that the coming of the police can explain the disarming of the English. The Bow Street Runners usually carried guns, the first police (formed in 1829) did not, primarily because they were sensitive to charges that they were intended to be the agents of government tyranny; but they occasionally armed themselves with cutlasses or pistols. If the police could be disarmed it was because the highwayman was already an endangered species.

The logic of disarmament is much more puzzling than that of the arms race. Armed criminals require an armed police, an armed police obliges criminals to carry guns, and so the spiral continues: it is called ‘the ratchet effect’ because it seems that both criminals and police will always have an incentive to arm, never to disarm. Yet disarmament can occur. In the early 17th century the Japanese made better guns than the Europeans and used them to win wars; by the end of the 17th century they no longer manufactured guns at all, the government seeming to have consciously pursued a policy of disarmament in order to preserve the culture of the samurai. What happened in 19th-century England is much harder to explain, for the government (it would seem) did nothing to prevent people carrying and using guns. The people disarmed themselves.

Perhaps the roots of the change lay not in the town but in the country. The Game Laws of 1671 gave every gentleman with a landed income of more than a hundred pounds a year the right (previously confined to the king’s licensees) to hunt game such as hares and partridges (deer and rabbits were presumed by then to be privately owned), and thereby deprived farmers and smallholders of the right to shoot on their own land. Only those with the right to shoot game were to be allowed to own guns, however, and Joyce Malcolm argues that if the Bill of Rights restored the right to own guns to the populace at large, in the countryside only gentlemen and gamekeepers had a legitimate reason to own them. Most country boys who moved to the cities in mid-19th-century England must never have held a gun in their hands. So disarmament may in part have been a consequence of the Game Laws.

In Norfolk and Suffolk in 1970 there was one shotgun certificate for every eight households. Had the countryside been reamed since the Game Laws were reformed in 1831? Certainly, rural America has never been disarmed. In 1787, the state of Pennsylvania declared that ‘the people have a right to bear arms for the defence of themselves and their own State, or the United States, or for the purpose of killing game.’ One of the great attractions of the New World, as compared to the Old, was that there was game in plenty, and it belonged to anyone who could shoot it. In any case, in England armed crime first rose and then began to fall while the Game Laws were still in force, so we must look elsewhere for an explanation. Perhaps the courts played a greater role than at first sight appears. Malcolm argues that when licensing was finally introduced in 1920 the main spur was a fear not of crime (which was only beginning its long upswing) but of Communism. In the 1830s and 1840s Chartism had provoked similar alarms. Pistols were occasionally produced at Chartist demonstrations, and fears of an armed uprising were intense. ‘I passed yesterday with the Grand Jury,’ a Lancashire magistrate wrote in 1839, ‘shovelling in bills against the rioters and orators by dozens: I am happy to think that we have been suddenly transformed to an absolute despotism as to speaking or arming. A copper cap or a piece of wadding are sufficient evidence against anybody.’

Many people may have got rid of their guns in order to avoid the attentions of such magistrates, but there was nothing to stop them reacquiring guns once the panic had died down. Yet, for some reason, once disarmed they remained disarmed. Increasingly, at least in the towns, it was only former army officers like Watson who owned guns: as late as 1918, an officer’s pistol was his private property. That gentlemen should be armed still seemed proper, but no longer, in time of peace, necessary.

In the 18th century, the right to bear arms seemed a precondition for liberty; perhaps other rights have now displaced it. Freedom of information, one might argue, now has the strategic significance for the preservation of liberty that the right to bear arms once had. Malcolm hesitates to draw this conclusion, however. She thinks it may still be the case that, as Macaulay claimed in 1850, this is ‘the security without which every other is insufficient’. One of the main problems faced by the Bosnian Muslims is that the international community has been reluctant to supply them with the arms to which, both as individuals and a nation, they have a natural right. It is important to bear in mind that revolutions and civil wars can still occur before dismissing outright the view that there is a continuing right to bear arms.

Joyce Malcolm concentrates on the twin questions of rights at law and political freedom. The subject-matter of V.A.C. Gattrell’s classic essay on ‘The Decline of Theft and Violence in Victorian and Edwardian England’ lies outside the scope of her argument. She thus avoids being drawn into an underexplored and puzzling subject, that of the social history of the gun in England. She does, however, make use of the last book-length study of firearms control in England, which was written by a senior policeman, Colin Greenwood, and published in 1972. It concluded that ‘no matter how one approaches the figures, one is forced to the rather startling conclusion that the use of firearms in crime was very much less when there were no controls of any sort and when anyone, convicted criminal or lunatic, could buy any type of firearm without restriction. Half a century of strict controls on pistols has ended, perversely, with a far greater use of this class of weapon in crime than ever before.’

Some would argue that a disarmed populace positively invites criminals to use guns, and would consequently blame gun control for the increase in armed crime: the case has recently been made by Daniel Polsby in an essay on ‘The False Promise of Gun Control’ in the Atlantic Monthly. He christens this ‘the futility theorem’. In America, widespread access to guns seems to be associated with armed crime, but this is a misperception: armed crime is rare in Switzerland, New Zealand and Israel, where guns in civilian hands are common. ‘The root cause of crime,’ according to Polsby, ‘is that for certain people predation is a rational occupation choice.’ In other words, crime is caused by unemployment, and armed crime by disarming the criminal’s victims. But, like the ratchet effect, the futility theorem seems to rely on abstract arguments that have little to do with real societies.

Polsby also remarks that ‘British criminals, unlike their American counterparts, prefer burglary (a crime of stealth) to robbery (a crime of intimidation).’ How and when did burglary become a more rational occupation choice than robbery? The rational choice theorists who now dominate social science departments in North America owe us an explanation for the decline in armed crime in 19th-century England; as do our own social historians, who have paid more attention to hanging than to shooting.

Joyce Malcolm’s book reminds us forcibly that arguments for gun ownership were, until quite recently, respectable and persuasive, and that gun control and peaceable behaviour appear to be unrelated phenomena. After eighty years of rising crime the streets and highways of England are still safer than in 1782, when Walpole wrote that ‘the highwaymen have cut off all communication between the nearest villages: it is as dangerous to go to Petersham as into Gibraltar.’ I hope someone will be provoked by Malcolm’s book into explaining how the roads around Petersham were made safe, not only for armed citizens, but also for unarmed women and children.