This article from the Daily Telegraph describes the process by which the British were stripped of the right to self defense.
Self defence, wrote William Blackstone, the 18th-century jurist, is a “natural right that no government can deprive people of, since no government can protect the individual in his moment of need”.
What changed ?
For almost 500 years, until 1954, England and Wales enjoyed a declining rate of violent crime. In the last years of the 19th century, when there were no restrictions on guns, there was just one handgun homicide a year in a population of 30 million people. In 1904 there were only four armed robberies in London, then the largest city in the world.
We still remember this reputation of Britain as a peaceable kingdom. The Lord of the Rings trilogy contrasted the peaceful Shire, inhabited by hobbits who were more concerned with warm hobbit holes, good food and smoking tobacco than with politics, with the harsh outside world. The books have been interpreted as allegorical comparison with Nazi Germany. What has happened since Tolkein wrote them ?
The practical removal of the right to self defence began with Britain’s 1920 Firearms Act, the first serious limitation on privately-owned firearms. It was motivated by fear of a Bolshevik-type revolution rather than concerns about householders defending themselves against robbers. Anyone wanting to keep a firearm had to get a certificate from his local police chief certifying that he was a suitable person to own a weapon and had a good reason to have it. The definition of “good reason”, left to the police, was gradually narrowed until, in 1969, the Home Office decided “it should never be necessary for anyone to possess a firearm for the protection of his house or person”.
Thus, crime was never the problem that led to the disarming of the population. Once guns were banned, the principle was extended to any potential weapon.
The 1953 Prevention of Crime Act made it illegal to carry in a public place any article “made, adapted or intended” for an offensive purpose “without lawful authority or reasonable excuse”. Any item carried for defence was, by definition, an “offensive” weapon.
Thus, it became illegal to defend yourself. The rule became to wait for the police to defend you. What if they didn’t arrive ?
Rather than permitting people to protect themselves, the authorities’ response to the recent series of brutal attacks on home-owners has been to advise people to get more locks and, in case of a break-in, retreat to a secure room – presumably the bathroom – to call the police. They are not to keep any weapon for protection or approach the intruder. Someone might get hurt. If that someone is the intruder the resident will be sued by the burglar and vigorously prosecuted by the state.
What was the result of this policy ?
At the same time as government demanded sole responsibility for protecting individuals, it adopted a more lenient approach toward offenders. Sentences were sharply reduced, few offenders served more than a third or a half of their term, and fewer offenders were incarcerated. Further, they were to be protected from their victims. Tony Martin, the Norfolk farmer jailed for killing one burglar and wounding another, was denied parole because he posed a danger to other burglars.
The “more guns, less crime” argument has been attacked in America as flawed research and the author of several of these studies has been vilified. What about the experience in Britain, far from the National Rifle Association?
This trade-off of rights for security has been disastrous for both. Crime has rocketed. A UN study in 2002 of 18 developed countries placed England and Wales at the top of the Western world’s crime league. Five years after the sweeping 1998 ban on handguns, handgun crime had doubled. As was forecast at the time, the effect of outlawing handguns has been that only outlaws have handguns.
The recent Heller decision has stimulated this debate once again. We will hear more about this issue in the months and years to come. Here is a Glenn Reynolds law review article on the future course of gun law litigation.
UPDATE: The original plaintiff, Heller, had his application denied today. The bureaucrats don’t give up that easily.