Targeting a myth The evidence suggests that gun control has not made England a safer, fairer society By Joyce Lee Malcolm Column: Crime, 5/26/2002 mericans who believe that more guns mean more crime awakened earlier this month to find, to their dismay, that the Justice Department and the federal courts had affirmed their constitutional right to be armed. Presumably, they would have preferred restrictions based on the English model, where the toughest firearms regulations of any democracy have been credited by gun control advocates with producing a low rate of violent crime. But there are two problems with that model. When guns were freely available, England had an astonishingly low level of violent crime. A government study for the years 1890-1892, for example, found only three handgun homicides, an average of one a year, in a population of 30 million. In 1904 there were only four armed robberies in London, then the largest city in the world. One century and many gun laws later, the British Broadcasting Corp. reports that England's firearms restrictions and 1997 ban on handguns ''have had little impact in the criminal underworld.'' Guns are virtually outlawed, and, as the old slogan predicted, only outlaws have guns. And what is worse, they are increasingly ready to use them. Five centuries of growing civility in England ended in 1954. Violent crime there has been climbing ever since, and armed crime - with banned handguns the weapon of choice - is described as rocketing. Between April and November 2001, the number of people robbed at gunpoint in London rose by 53 percent. Last summer, in the course of a few days, gun-toting men burst into an English court and freed two defendants; a shooting outside a London nightclub left five women and three men wounded; and two men were machine-gunned to death in a residential neighborhood of North London. Gun crime is just part of an increasingly lawless environment. Your chances of being mugged in London are now six times greater than in New York. England's rates of robbery and burglary are far higher than America's, and 53 percent of burglaries in England occur while occupants are at home, compared with 13 percent in the United States, where burglars admit to fearing armed homeowners more than the police. This sea change in English crime is indicative of government policies that have gone badly wrong. Gun regulations have been only part of a more general disarmament based on the premise that people shouldn't need to protect themselves because society will protect them. It will also protect their neighbors. Citizens who witness a crime are advised to ''walk on by'' and let the professionals handle it. First, government clamped down on private possession of guns; then it forbade people carrying any article that might be used for self-defense; lastly the vigor of that self-defense was to be judged by what, in hindsight, seemed ''reasonable in the circumstances.'' The 1920 Firearms Act, the first serious British restriction on guns, required a local chief of police to certify that the potential gun owner had a good reason for owning a weapon and was a fit person to have it. All very sensible. Yet over the years a series of secret Home Office instructions to police - classified until 1989 - narrowed both criteria until, in 1969, police were instructed that ''it should never be necessary for anyone to possess a firearm for the protection of his house or person.'' Since 1997, handguns have been banned. Proposed exemptions for handicapped shooters and the British Olympic team were rejected. Far more sweeping was the 1953 Prevention of Crime Act that made it illegal to carry any article in a public place ''made, adapted, or intended'' for an offensive purpose ''without lawful authority or excuse.'' Carrying something to protect yourself was branded antisocial. Any item carried for possible defense automatically became an offensive weapon. Individuals stopped by the police and found with such items were guilty until proven innocent. As a concerned member of the House of Commons pointed out, while ''society ought to undertake the defense of its members, nevertheless one has to remember that there are many places where society cannot get, or cannot get there in time. On those occasions a man has to defend himself and those whom he is escorting. It is not very much consolation that society will come forward a great deal later, pick up the bits, and punish the violent offender.'' In the House of Lords, Lord Saltoun argued that the object of a weapon was to assist weakness to cope with strength and this bill was ''framed to destroy.'' He added that he did not think governments ''have the right ... though they may very well have the power ... to deprive people for whom they are responsible of the right to defend themselves ... nless there is not only a right but also a fundamental willingness amongst the people to defend themselves, no police force, however large, can do it.'' But at government insistence the law passed and became permanent. A broad 1967 revision of criminal law altered the common law standard for self-defense so that everything turns on what appears ''reasonable'' force against an assailant, considered after the fact. As the author of a leading British legal textbook pointed out, that requirement is ''now stated in such mitigated terms as to cast doubt on whether it [self-defense] still forms part of the law.'' Three cases illustrate the results of these measures: In 1987, two men assaulted Eric Butler, a 56-year-old British Petroleum executive, in a London subway car, trying to strangle him and smashing his head against the door. No one came to his aid. He later testified, ''My air supply was being cut off, my eyes became blurred, and I feared for my life.'' In desperation he unsheathed an ornamental sword blade in his walking stick and slashed at one of his attackers, stabbing the man in the stomach. The assailants were charged with wounding. Butler was tried and convicted of carrying an offensive weapon. In August 1999, Tony Martin, a 55-year-old Norfolk farmer living alone in a shabby farmhouse, awakened to the sound of breaking glass as two professional burglars burst into his home. He had been robbed six times before but, like 70 percent of rural English villages, his had no police presence. He sneaked downstairs with a shotgun and shot at the intruders. Martin received life in prison for killing one burglar, 10 years for wounding the second, and 12 months for having an illegal shotgun. In 1994, an English homeowner, armed with a toy gun, managed to detain two burglars who had broken into his house, while he called the police. When the officers arrived they arrested the homeowner for using an imitation gun to put someone in fear. Parliament is now considering making imitation guns illegal. This is a cautionary tale. America's founders, like their English forebears, regarded personal security as one of the three great and primary rights of mankind. That was their main reason for including a right for individuals to be armed. Everyone doesn't need to avail himself of that right. It is a dangerous right. But leaving personal protection to the police is also dangerous. The English government has come perilously close to depriving its people of the ability to protect themselves at all, and the result is a more, not less, dangerous society. ''It is implicit in a genuine right,'' an English judge pointed out, ''that its exercise may work against (some facet of) the public interest: a right to speak only where its exercise advanced the public welfare or public policy ... would be a hollow guarantee against repression.'' Public safety is not enhanced by depriving individuals of their right to personal safety. Joyce Lee Malcolm is a history professor at Bentley College and author of "Guns and Violence: The English Experience." This story ran on page D1 of the Boston Globe on 5/26/2002. Â© Copyright 2002 Globe Newspaper Company.