Lee B. Kennett - Guns and Violence: The English Experience (review) - Journal of Military History 67:1 The Journal of Military History 67.1 (2003) 317-318

Guns and Violence: The English Experience. By Joyce Lee Malcolm. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2002. ISBN 0-674-00753-0. Notes. Index. Pp. 340. $28.00.

This work has little direct rapport with military history, being for the most part a study of crime patterns and arms legislation in England from the Middle Ages to the present, with more than half of the text dedicated to the nineteenth and twentieth centuries; references to the British armed forces and the wars they engaged in are few. Still, weapons and violence have been constants in war, and readers can learn something further about them both here: for example, Joyce Lee Malcolm finds that when England was waging war abroad violent crimes at home declined, thanks to the temporary absence of turbulent and belligerent elements in its population; she likewise attributes the customary rise in postwar crime rates to the return of these same elements, some of whom have been further "brutalized" by their wartime experiences.

Then too, recent works on firearms and civil society have tended to collide with traditional viewpoints in a rather spectacular way. Thus in 2000 [End Page 317] Michael Bellesîles published Arming America, a controversial book in which he toppled the Minuteman from his pedestal, propounding the near-heretical thesis that firearms were not widely owned in colonial and early national America and suggesting that they and their owners played at best a modest role in our history.

And now the sound and fury will continue. An academic historian publishing with an Ivy League press has produced a solidly documented and closely reasoned book that the National Rifle Association will no doubt greet with hosannas. Professor Malcolm offers this assessment of a century's legislative efforts at gun control in England: "Government created a hapless, passive citizenry, then took upon itself the impossible task of protecting it. Its failure could not have been more flagrant." In a chapter on "the American case," Professor Malcolm concludes: "the decline of violent crime in the United States and its rise in England serve to underline the fact that guns in and of themselves are not a cause of crime. Moreover, there is evidence that armed civilians, as thirty-three states believe, do reduce crime." Charlton Heston could not have said it better.


Lee Kennett
Pleasant Garden, North Carolina

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