On a June evening two years ago, Dan Rather made many stiff British upper lips quiver by reporting that England had a crime problem and that, apart from murder, "theirs is worse than ours." The response was swift and sharp. "Have a Nice Daydream," The Mirror, a London daily, shot back, reporting: "Britain reacted with fury and disbelief last night to claims by American newsmen that crime and violence are worse here than in the US." But sandwiched between the article's battery of official denials -- "totally misleading," "a huge over-simplification," "astounding and outrageous" -- and a compilation of lurid crimes from "the wild west culture on the other side of the Atlantic where every other car is carrying a gun," The Mirror conceded that the CBS anchorman was correct. Except for murder and rape, it admitted, "Britain has overtaken the US for all major crimes."
In the two years since Dan Rather was so roundly rebuked, violence in England has gotten markedly worse. Over the course of a few days in the summer of 2001, 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. And on New Year's Day this year a 19-year-old girl walking on a main street in east London was shot in the head by a thief who wanted her mobile phone. London police are now looking to New York City police for advice.
None of this was supposed to happen in the country whose stringent gun laws and 1997 ban on handguns have been hailed as the "gold standard" of gun control. For the better part of a century, British governments have pursued a strategy for domestic safety that a 1992 Economist article characterized as requiring "a restraint on personal liberty that seems, in most civilised countries, essential to the happiness of others," a policy the magazine found at odds with "America's Vigilante Values." The safety of English people has been staked on the thesis that fewer private guns means less crime. The government believes that any weapons in the hands of men and women, however law-abiding, pose a danger, and that disarming them lessens the chance that criminals will get or use weapons.
The results -- the toughest firearm restrictions of any democracy -- are credited by the world's gun control advocates with producing a low rate of violent crime. U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell reflected this conventional wisdom when, in a 1988 speech to the American Bar Association, he attributed England's low rates of violent crime to the fact that "private ownership of guns is strictly controlled."
In reality, the English approach has not re-duced violent crime. Instead it has left law-abiding citizens at the mercy of criminals who are confident that their victims have neither the means nor the legal right to resist them. Imitating this model would be a public safety disaster for the United States.
The illusion that the English 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. Worse, they are increasingly ready to use them.
Nearly five centuries of growing civility ended in 1954. Violent crime has been climbing ever since. Last December, London's Evening Standard reported that armed crime, with banned handguns the weapon of choice, was "rocketing." In the two years following the 1997 handgun ban, the use of handguns in crime rose by 40 percent, and the upward trend has continued. From April to November 2001, the number of people robbed at gunpoint in London rose 53 percent.
Gun crime is just part of an increasingly lawless environment. From 1991 to 1995, crimes against the person in England's inner cities increased 91 percent. And in the four years from 1997 to 2001, the rate of violent crime more than doubled. Your chances of being mugged in London are now six times greater than in New York. England's rates of assault, robbery, and burglary are far higher than America's, and 53 percent of English burglaries occur while occupants are at home, compared with 13 percent in the U.S., where burglars admit to fearing armed homeowners more than the police. In a United Nations study of crime in 18 developed nations published in July, England and Wales led the Western world's crime league, with nearly 55 crimes per 100 people.
This sea change in English crime followed a sea change in government policies. Gun regulations have been part of a more general disarmament based on the proposition that people don't need to protect themselves because society will protect them. It also will protect their neighbors: Police advise those who witness a crime to "walk on by" and let the professionals handle it.
This is a reversal of centuries of common law that not only permitted but expected individuals to defend themselves, their families, and their neighbors when other help was not available. It was a legal tradition passed on to Americans. Personal security was ranked first among an individual's rights by William Blackstone, the great 18th-century exponent of the common law. It was a right, he argued, that no government could take away, since no government could protect the individual in his moment of need. A century later Blackstone's illustrious successor, A.V. Dicey, cautioned, "discourage self-help and loyal subjects become the slaves of ruffians."
But modern English governments have put public order ahead of the individual's right to personal safety. First the government clamped down on private possession of guns; then it forbade people to carry any article that might be used for self-defense; finally, the vigor of that self-defense was to be judged by what, in hindsight, seemed "reasonable in the circumstances."
The 1920 Firearms Act was the first serious British restriction on guns. Although crime was low in England in 1920, the government feared massive labor disruption and a Bolshevik revolution. In the circumstances, permitting the people to remain armed must have seemed an unnecessary risk. And so the new policy of disarming the public began. The Firearms Act required a would-be gun owner to obtain a certificate from the local chief of police, who was charged with determining whether the applicant had a good reason for possessing a weapon and was fit to do so. All very sensible. Parliament was assured that the intention was to keep weapons out of the hands of criminals and other dangerous persons. Yet from the start the law's enforcement was far more restrictive, and Home Office instructions to police -- classified until 1989 -- periodically narrowed the criteria.
At first police were instructed that it would be a good reason to have a revolver if a person "lives in a solitary house, where protection against thieves and burglars is essential, or has been exposed to definite threats to life on account of his performance of some public duty." By 1937 police were to discourage applications to possess firearms for house or personal protection. In 1964 they were told "it should hardly ever be necessary to anyone to possess a firearm for the protection of his house or person" and that "this principle should hold good even in the case of banks and firms who desire to protect valuables or large quantities of money."
In 1969 police were informed "it should never be necessary for anyone to possess a firearm for the protection of his house or person." These changes were made without public knowledge or debate. Their enforcement has consumed hundreds of thousands of police hours. Finally, in 1997 handguns were banned. Proposed exemptions for handicapped shooters and the British Olympic team were rejected.
Even more sweeping was the 1953 Prevention of Crime Act, which made it illegal to carry in a public place any article "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. Police were given extensive power to stop and search everyone. Individuals found with offensive items were guilty until proven innocent.