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British experiences with the right to bear arms and what happened when they lost it

Anyone affected by crime or devoted to freedom will be interested in the US Supreme Court's hearing of Heller v. District of Columbia, which began yesterday. The Court will decide whether the US Constitution's Second Amendment confers an individual right to bear arms and what if any regulations government can impose on that right. British experiences with the right to bear arms have something to say to the Justices, but not, perhaps, what they initially imagined.

Among much else, the Justices were interested in establishing the facts of the 1689 English Bill of Rights, which was the direct inspiration of the US Constitution's Second Amendment. Americans considered their right to bear arms to be their absolute right as "true-born Englishmen", could not have won their Revolution without bearing arms, and established that right in their Constitution.

The 1689 English Bill of Rights confirmed that Englishmen had an ancient right to "have arms for their defence". When we consider that 18th century Americans, living on farms or travelling in the wilderness would have needed guns for food and protection, it seems obvious that the framers of the US Constitution viewed the right to bear arms as an individual right, not, as some have suggested, only the right to be part of a 'well-regulated' militia.

Just as obviously, we are not living in the 18th century. Citing statistics that show thousands of people are killed by guns every year, Justice Stephen Breyer asked why a ban on handguns wasn't reasonable? Again, we offer a British response.

Joyce Lee Malcolm, who has written thoughtfully and extensively on the right to be armed, explains, "America's founders, like their English forebears, regarded personal security as first of the three primary rights of mankind". (Blackstone identified the three absolute natural rights as the right of personal security; the right to personal liberty; and the right to property.) Until recently the British people believed that they had a right to personal security and that they, not the government, would be largely responsible for guaranteeing it.

Today the British government has taken on the apparently irresistible role of saviour and, claiming that it is protecting the law-abiding British people, has disarmed them. Did they need to be saved? Do they feel safer? Are they safer?

Malcom explains that the illusion that the British government had protected its citizens by disarming them “seemed credible because few realized the country had an astonishingly low level of armed crime even before guns were restricted. A government study for the years 1890-92, 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. A hundred years and many gun laws later, the BBC reported that England's firearms restrictions 'seem to have had little impact in the criminal underworld.' Guns are virtually outlawed, and, as the old slogan predicted, only outlaws have guns."

It seems evident that the right to be secure and safe was one reason for the individual right to be armed. In a time-critical emergency the police are often too far away to help. But there is another obvious reason for the right that is part of history, past and present. The English Bill was the result of a Civil War and Glorious Revolution to limit the power of the Sovereign and to reestablish the ancient rights and freedoms of the British people. To defend those rights it had been necessary to be armed.

"The right of citizens to bear arms is just one guarantee against arbitrary government, one more safeguard, against the tyranny which now appears remote in America but which historically has proven to be always possible."

That was liberal US Senator Hubert Humphrey in 1960, not the first person you might name as a defender of the right to bear arms. The survivors of the French Resistance agreed. In their fascinating and recently published abstract, "Is there a Relationship between Guns and Freedom? Comparative Results from 59 Nations", Howard Nemerov and David B. Kopel point out that although France requires gun registration, after World War II almost every surviving member of the French Resistance kept his or her personal arms, unregistered, and many of their children did the same.

Certainly many Irish would agree that had the Irish possessed the right to bear arms they would have won their freedom and independence centuries before they did. But many people who are free today prefer to believe that the struggle for freedom has ended and that freedom does not have to be defended. They do not want to believe they would ever be in the position of the Jews, disarmed by the German state before they were killed, or the Armenians, disarmed by the Turkish state before they were killed, or the defenceless Rwandans or so many other people, including the unarmed and dying people of Darfur.

Nemerov and Kopel suggest that there is a connection between freedom, lack of corruption, economic prosperity and high gun ownership. It appears that countries with the very highest levels of gun ownership are the freest and most prosperous. Japan and the Netherlands are two exceptions - they are free and prosperous but few people own guns.

Still, many people can't help but sympathize with Justice Breyer's question because the idea that sweeping away guns will make a community safe is a deeply appealing idea. Indeed, Nemerov and Kopel declare that guns may reduce freedom by creating chaos. "There are many modern nations where it is easy to see how the widespread presence of guns in the wrong hands reduces freedom. Guns in the hands of warlords in the Ivory Coast, the Congo, and in Sudan/Uganda (the Lord’s Resistance Army) wreak havoc on civilian populations, and make it nearly impossible for civil society, and its attendant freedoms, to exist."

This appears to be true until you think about it. Does anyone believe that if guns disappeared these gangsters would not be killing with knives, machetes, and IEDs?

It is common sense that criminals strike the vulnerable – those they know cannot defend themselves. They are far less likely to launch a house invasion if they think a homeowner may be armed. Hence, it is not surprising that British crime statistics provide evidence that taking guns away from law-abiding citizens leads to increasing gun violence by criminals. Crime committed with guns has been on the rise since 1997, the year that the government banned handguns.

But it is also indisputable that shattering cultural and demographic changes have occurred in Britain since, as Malcolm puts it, "Nearly five centuries of growing civility ended in 1954. Violent crime has been climbing ever since."

These experiences make us feel that a long, cool look at the people committing crime, rather than at their guns, might be the place to start. The surest protections against crime are armed law-abiding citizens, bobbies walking the beat, and communities whose people know and care about each other.

Exactly when the British people will recover their freedom to bear arms is less obvious. What is clear from a review of the 2,000 year Liberty Timeline is that freedom and the gifts of freedom could never have been created if the British people had not been armed.

Do we wish that the cause of freedom had advanced peacefully? Of course. Was that possible? A clear-eyed appraisal of the human race will suggest the answer.