July 31, 2002
I FINISHED READING Joyce Malcolm’s book, Guns and Violence: The English Experience last night. (That’s the Amazon link; here is the Harvard University Press page, though it has less information). Very interesting book; I may make it the subject of next week’s Fox column. Very short summary:
Crime in England declined for 500 years, from the 15th century to the early 20th, even as gun ownership became more common. Beginning in the 20th Century, England began a program of strict gun controls (primarily intended to disarm labor activists and suspected bolsheviks). By mid-century, this was in place, and coupled with very strict rules limiting self-defense that, in practice and public perception, meant that criminals got an easier shake than honest people who defended themselves. Crime rates — including gun crime rates — then started to rise, and have been rising ever since despite ever-stricter gun controls.
No surprise there, to those familiar with the work of criminologists like John Lott and Gary Kleck. But it’s interesting to see that Britain is, ever so slowly, beginning to recognize the issue, and the English experience belies the standard low-crime/low gun availability stereotype. In fact, when crime in England was at its lowest, guns were as readily available as in the United States . And it’s certainly a blow to stereotypes of lefty bias that Harvard University Press has published this book, as well as its predecessor, To Keep and Bear Arms: The Origins of an Anglo-American Right (1994). Or at least proof that such bias doesn’t always stand in the way of good work.
UPDATE: Here’s a link to a review of Malcolm’s book by Clayton Cramer that appeared in Books and Culture. The review is more critical than one might expect, given Cramer’s strong pro-gun-rights position, but serves as proof that Cramer doesn’t let politics drive his scholarly positions. (Cramer was the first, and for a long time the loudest, to point out Michael Bellesiles’ misconduct). While I agree with Cramer that this book isn’t the tour de force that Malcolm’s previous work was, I think that most of his criticisms (for example, that she relies on secondary sources rather than recently declassified documents that say the same thing) are of little interest to the general reader.