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December 08, 2005

Time for the police to be armed and for home owners to have the right to protect themselves - argues Joyce Lee Malcolm, author of Guns and Violence: The English Experience

Posted by Joyce Lee Malcolm

It is time for the British police to be armed and for home owners to have the right to protect their property, argues Prof. Joyce Lee Malcolm, author of Guns and Violence: The English Experience. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not those of the Social Affairs Unit, its Trustees, Advisors or Director.

Here's an easy question. What do British government responses to the recent shooting of two policewomen and to the bill to give home owners more power to protect themselves have in common? Answer: they give aid and comfort to your average British criminal. He will continue to have little to fear from disarmed and desperate home owners or from the local police, should they show up. What a gift! The thinking behind both policies is simple. Neither the general public nor the police can be trusted with weapons, indeed ordinary, weaponless citizens can't even be trusted to defend themselves and their families responsibly in their own homes.

Consider the issue of arming the police, or at least those not on desk duty. The reason the British police have been unarmed over the years is because when the force was first established, the public was adamantly opposed to their being armed. Walter Bagehot wrote:

I know people, old people I admit, who to this day consider them [the police] an infringement of freedom, and an imitation of the gendarmes of France. If the original policemen had been started with the present helmets, the result might have been dubious; there might have been a cry of military tyranny….
In nineteenth-century Britain the people were armed, the police unarmed, but armed crime was almost non-existent. Over a five-year period in the 1890s only 31 burglars in the entire country were found carrying firearms, and only three homicides with handguns occurred over a three-year period, an average of one a year. How different today. The police remain largely unarmed, but the people have been systematically disarmed and armed crime has become commonplace.

The two policewomen who were shot, one fatally, in Bradford were responding to a robbery at a travel agency located only a minute's walk from the police station. Both policewomen were unarmed, both were wearing body armour. Body armour does not protect the head. The long-standing argument against arming the police or shop staff is that if no one else is armed robbers won't feel they need to be. Well, surprise! The robbers were armed anyway, and, thanks to current policies, they were the only ones armed. All the advantage was theirs. This has happened before. In May 2004 an officer was fatally stabbed in Birmingham. Two years ago another police officer was shot dead in West Yorkshire.

The Home Secretary, Charles Clarke, noted that this latest incident reminds the public of the:

risks and dangers police officers face every day in their work to uphold the law and protect the public.
But should they face this risk? And will the public be better protected if unarmed officers merely add to the victim list, or decide not to risk a confrontation with an armed criminal? Metropolitan Police Commissioner Sir Ian Blair cheerfully reports that 90% of his officers are unarmed and that that is the way he wants to keep it.

Lord Brian Mackenzie, a former president of the Superintendents' Association of England and Wales, acknowledged that:

the adage that if you arm the police more criminals will carry guns is nonsense.
Nevertheless he maintains that arming all officers would make the violence worse. He claimed that American FBI officers were often shot with their own weapons by attackers, and that there would be:
more risk of accidents and innocent people getting shot.
Of course innocent people are getting shot now.

Hazel Blears, Home Office minister, sees another problem. She fears routinely arming officers could endanger their relationship with the public. But are dead or timid police officers necessary to keep a good relationship with the public? What sort of relationship is that?

Ms Blears seems to have missed the fact that for many years now the public image of the police has been a poor one. Officers are in short supply and nearly invisible on the streets. They spend inordinate hours on paper work. Few 999 calls are responded to in a timely manner. Worse, police seem incapable of stemming the rise in violent crime. In 2004-2005 violent offences in England and Wales rose by 7% reaching record levels and topping the million mark. In September a United Nations report found Scotland the most violent country in the developed world. How could arming the police, thereby making them serious protectors of the public, possibly make matters worse?

As for the poor householder, the Home Secretary insists there is no problem with the present law which forbids the home owner keeping a firearm for protection and may prosecute him if he harms an intruder. Apparently Clarke finds the massive public support for legislation that permits vigorous defence of home and family, sadly misguided. The public should simply rely upon the protection of the police, such as it is, and the good judgment of the Crown Prosecution Service and a jury of their peers. What's wrong with leaving the question of what constituted a "reasonable" amount of force during a home invasion to be decided in a court of law months later? And so we have the unarmed citizen and the unarmed police left to the good sense and mercy of the armed criminal.

For what it is worth, America continues to go its own way, expanding the individual's right to be armed and his right of self-defence, in the process enjoying declining rates of crime and gun violence. The federal assault-weapons ban was allowed to expire last year. A National Institute of Justice study had concluded:

We cannot clearly credit the ban with any of the nation's recent drop in gun violence.
They added that these so-called assault weapons were almost never used in crime even before the ban. States are strengthening the individual's right to self-defence.

Florida recently passed a measure permitting citizens attacked in a public place and in fear of death or great bodily harm to stand their ground and resist, rather than being obliged to retreat. Indeed fleeing, as British law requires, usually exposes an individual to greater risk. With the adoption of this "stand your ground" rule Florida joins the majority of American states that permit a person attacked anywhere to stand his ground and use deadly force to resist. In 1987 when Florida passed legislation to make it easier for law-abiding citizens to carry concealed firearms for protection, there were claims the streets would be running with blood and every "fender-bender" would result in a shoot-out. Eighteen years and more than 1 million conceal-carry permits later, Florida's murder rate has been cut in half. Last year, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, firearms-related crime in the United States had fallen by 54% since 1993 and had declined to record levels. As for violent crimes generally, there were more than 980,000 fewer in 2002 than in 2000.

Americans have found that the public can be trusted to protect themselves and each other, and that deterrence works. The unilateral disarmament the British government insists on imposing upon the British people and upon most of the police force benefits only the predators. Hey, someone on the good side needs to have a gun.

Joyce Lee Malcolm is Professor of History at Bentley College and author of Guns and Violence: The English Experience (Harvard University Press, 2004).


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No doubt America is safer with armed civilians, and victually every police chief there concurs. As for arming the British police, after they murdered the Brazilian in cold blood and concocted a skein of lies to cover it up, perhaps law-abiding citizens are safer leaving the criminals with guns and the police without them.

Posted by: s masty at December 9, 2005 01:12 PM
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Interesting (and distressing post). The view that guns will put up a barrier between police and citizen is overblown. Having lived in T-xas for over 30 years and working with police for over 10 years now I can state without reservation that law-abiding folks have no problem with armed police. Is there the occasional accident? No doubt, but relatively rare considereing the over 50 million police/citizen contacts every year. Nervousness around police is a factor used in our reasonable suspicion because we operate under the assumption that anyone nervous around a cop has a reason to be nervous. The average citizen has no need for anxiety because he has a clear conscience.

Posted by: Troy at December 13, 2005 07:12 PM
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It is well past the time when attitudes to firearms underwent a profound change. The governing attitude that dicatates UK law and policy on firearms is one rooted in hysteria and poor information.
It is apparent that we live in a society where the chances of being shot at , knifed, bludgeoned, are on the increase, whatever juggled statistics might be used to convince us otherwise.
Guns have never been more freely or easilly available in the UK. Sadly, that only applies to criminals. This is an imbalance that needs redress.
British firearms controls only regulate gun ownership amongst the law abiding citizen, these controls do nothing to disarm the growing number of gun owning criminals. The gun-laws are totally impotent. This speaks for itself in terms of logical outcomes.
We cannot expect a police force to deal with rising gun crime equipped with a baton and a 'pepper' spray. The government should not expect the British public to accept being cast as conveniently soft targets for a criiminal class so undeterred by the 'deterrents' under law, that they will gun down 12 year old girls in drive-by's, grandmothers in jewellery shop robberies, and WPC's investigating a burglary. These are just in nottingham in recent years.
The WPC should have been armed, and along with her partner, able to not only match the criminal's fire-power, but totally out-gun him. It is that , that would have deterred the gunman from firng.

We seem to have a strange credo in the UK whereby we feel obligated to set the rights of the lawbreaker above all others.
When it comes to firearms the hysterical fear merchants always demonise the gun, and indeed shooters. After Dunblane we had sweeping changes in the law, supposedly to erradicate the growing gun culture of the UK. I always believed those laws were more about grabbing easy votes in the pending election.
Did those changes erradicate 'a growing gun culture' ?.. Of course they didn't. All they did was to remove handguns from the ownership of what might well have been the safest, most stable, and least criminally motivated group in the UK. I was a shooter, a handgunner, and also a totally law abiding citizen. Thus my handguns were handed in. I did not trot out and secure an illegal weapon, which would have been fairly easy to do then,and a damn sight easier now.
It is time to be grown up about the whole issue of law and order.
Basic facts are always ignored by those who crusade from self interest. After the London bombings we heard far more about one man shot by police , than we did about the combined fatalities of the bombings. Why ?. Because he was shot by police officers. There was also a furor, because some suspected special service troops were being used in the role of armed reaction groups.
Why ?. They are the best people for it. It is sad that the man was killed. Yet, he was challenged to stop. He chose not to. If he had obeyed the command of armed officers he would have been fine. It is wrong to blame those officers for the choices made by an individual who deliberately sought to evade them. Apparently he was an 'illegal' and some seem to feel that validates his attempts, and grants a right, to escape the police. Of course, it doesn't.
It is time we took law and order seriously, it is time we accepted that criminals should be counter-acted, deterred, and dealt with by a society that has the ability, and makes the choice, to be more powerful than the criminal. It is the criminal who should be vulnerable, not the children, the grandmothers and the WPC's/PC's forced to be under threat by stupid laws and pressure groups devoid of any real humanity.
We always hear the horror stories concerning guns, for anyone interested look up 'Gun ownership in Kennesaw Georgia, USA' ( I think the spelling and location is right). Faced with a growing population that grew tenfold as a result of economic revitalisation, the Kennesaw town 'fathers' passed a law saying the head of every household had to own at least one firearm for home defense. Failing to do so is punishable by law.
Now this situation should be the perfect proving ground for the 'Guns=mass mayhem brigade'.
However, despite the population explosion crime dropped by something like 84%. All rates reduced. The police view of why was simple...'Criminals do not choose Kennesaw when they look for a target'.
A society should be judged not on how it cares for it's criminals, but on how it cares for the weak and the vulnerable, the young, the old.
And please don't trot out the 70's drivel about the criminal being a victim. We have been hearing that for nearly fifty years. We have had all the spiel about it not being their fault; we have had all the listen softly and understand. IT is beyond the time when we simply say, 'stop it, that's naughty', and mean it.
Criminals make choices. The majority of those born poor, or know poverty, do not opt for crime, so there is no excuse for those who do.

Posted by: AnOrdinaryGuy at February 16, 2006 01:26 AM
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