Gun Articles: The smoking barrel. - Guns and Violence

The debate over our right to bear arms rages on: Do guns predict or prevent violence? While evidence seems to point to the former, author Joyce Lee Malcolm makes the case for firearms' historic role in helping to decrease violent crime.

GUNS AND VIOLENCE: THE ENGLISH EXPERIENCE (Harvard University Press, 2002) Joyce Lee Malcolm Reviewed by David Hemenway, Ph.D. AMERICANS ARE AMONG THE world's most heavily armed people. And according to author Joyce Lee Malcolm, Ph.D., our guns make us safer. "In England, fewer guns have meant more crime," she writes. "In America, more guns have meant less crime."

Malcolm, a history professor at Bentley College in Massachusetts, provides a broad-brush survey of English history from 1500 to the present, then compares the rates of gun ownership and crime in England and America in the last 20 years. Her thesis rests on two ideas: Violent crimes in England decreased dramatically between 1500 and 1953 (while the number of personal firearms rose) and in the past two decades, gun availability fell in England and crime increased, while the reverse occurred in the U.S.

One problem with Malcolm's argument is her conclusion from correlational data (as gun ownership increases, crime decreases) that guns reduce crime. England experienced many changes between 1500 and 1953--industrialization and urbanization, to name two--any of which may have helped reduce crime. Malcolm also notes that homicide rates began falling in 1500 as guns became more available. And while there were even fewer crimes and more guns 300 years later, most of those guns were muskets. Inaccurate and dangerous, muskets are not very useful for crime or self-defense.

A second problem is Malcolm's argument for a connection between gun ownership and violent crime. Good data do not exist for the period under scrutiny, and even Malcolm admits that "we have no way of knowing how many Englishmen actually owned firearms" in 1900.

Shifting to more recent experiences, Malcolm claims that England's crime rate increased in the 1980s and 1990s, while the U.S. rate declined. Again she attributes this to changes in gun availability, but the data do not fit her thesis. During the past 20 years, gun prevalence in U.S. households has actually decreased; the General Social Surveys find that rates fell steadily from 48 percent in 1980 to 40 percent in 1999. Gun ownership and homicide rates also fell throughout most of the '90s. Moreover, while victimization surveys find that robbery, assault and vehicle theft are as high in England as in the U.S., our homicide rate is six times higher and most of those murders were gun-related.

Malcolm's thesis is inconsistent with the bulk of research on guns and crime, evidence she does not discuss. For instance, studies in the U.S. and other developed countries show that increased gun ownership coincides with higher rates of firearm homicide. Everyone is at higher risk of murder if more neighbors own guns. When an author's stand defies common sense, readers have the right to expect strong, supporting evidence. Malcolm's case is far from compelling, and she ignores a wealth of contradictory evidence. She may win admirers among gun enthusiasts, but the evidence still shows that where violent crime is concerned, guns are not the solution--they are part of the problem.


Understanding the actual relationship between firearms and violence is essential to developing policies that provide personal security, a great and primary right of mankind. It is my hope that tracking the history of this relationship can afford a more factual basis for policy debate and lead to safer communities.

--Joyce Lee Malcolm, Ph.D.

David Hemenway, Ph.D., is director of the Injury Control Research Center at the Harvard School of Public Health. He is currently writing a book on the public-health approach to reducing firearm violence.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Sussex Publishers, Inc. COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group