The desire to restrict the possession of weapons has always come from those who wished to not only monopolise power but to do so on their own terms. When the crossbow was
invented, the medieval nobility attempted to ban it because it reduced the effectiveness of the armoured and mounted knight. Failing in that, they attempted to restrict, with some success, its ownership to people they could control. The Samurai in Japan enforced ruthlessly their rule that only Samurai should carry swords. When the demobbed conscripts of British Army returned to Britain after the First World War, the British government passed the first serious laws regulating gun ownership not because they feared that the British would begin to murder one another in great numbers but because they feared Red revolution.
As things stand in Britain, legal gun ownership has become so onerous, that many long-time licence holders have given up. The effort in obtaining a licence and in maintaining it is considerable, because of both the draconian storage conditions required by the police
and their eagerness to engineer the revocation and denial of licences. Even if you legally own a gun, woe betide you if you are spotted openly carrying it in a public place. Assuming you are not gunned down by over-excited policemen, you will not merely have your licence revoked but probably end up in court as well. As for other weapons, if the police want to pick you up for possessing an offensive weapon there is a fair chance they can do so even if you do not mean to carry one.
Forget about knives or coshes, which are complete no, nos, you are conceivably
committing an offence if you have an aerosol of hairspray about your person or
a hammer, for the 1953 Prevention of Crime Act creates a general offence of
possessing an offensive weapon in a public place, an offensive weapon being
anything from a gun to a piece of wood or stone or a kitchen knife which is made,
adapted or intended to cause physical injury to a person.
Is there an historical basis for private weapon ownership in England?
This is an impossible question to answer categorically. It is undeniably true that weapons were held widely by private individuals. Feudal military obligation was in fact built on the private provision not merely of men but of arms and equipment. In late medieval times statutes were enacted to encourage long bow practice. The Spanish Armada which attempted to invade England in 1588 was repulsed by a mixed English fleet of private and Royal ships. Yet although weapons were commonly held by private individuals for many centuries, the right of the individual to hold weapons, especially guns, was far from being absolute or accepted by authority. The Bill of Rights passed after William of Orange
came to the throne in 1689 stated:
By causing several good subjects, being Protestants, to be disarmed, at the same time when papists were both armed and employed, contrary to law. (Clause 6 of the Bill of
That the subjects which are Protestants, may have arms for their defence suitable to their
conditions, and as allowed by law. (Clause 7 of the Bill of Rights 1690)
There are four points to note. First, Catholics were not thought to have the right to have arms. Second, the clear implication is that Protestants were to be armed to defend themselves Catholics. Third, the very fact that such a clause was included means that the right to weapons was not so much of English life that it was taken for granted. Fourth, it uses the phrase “suitable to their conditions”. This must mean that the right to weapons was limited and not limited merely in the sense that a private individual might not have a cannon but might have a musket. It is also illuminating that when the US Bill of Rights was created a century later it ran:
“A well regulated militia being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of
the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” (American Constitution Second Amendment)
The American Bill of Rights was based on firmly on English tradition, the founding fathers of the USA considering themselves to be preserving English liberty after it had fallen into corruption in England. Yet they did not say that a man has the right to bear
and keep arms full stop. They say he has it because of the need to maintain a militia.
Nonetheless the 1690 Bill of Rights does grant a right to bear arms of some sort. Leaving aside the question of what arms are permitted, does the Bill of Rights have any force
today? The problem for those who would say it has is that the Bill of Rights is simply an Act of Parliament. It has no special constitutional status, any more than does any other British law with constitutional implications. As such it is difficult to see how it can not have been amended by the subsequent passing of laws restricting the ownership of weapons. It is true that none of those laws specifically nullifies the Bill of Rights, but it is a long established practice in English law that the passing of a new Act which contradicts a
previous law is treated as automatically nullifying the earlier law (the concept of implied repeal). Whether this practice is entirely sound in law is perhaps debatable, but I cannot
imagine any English court overturning the de facto principle retrospectively simply
because of the immense implications of doing so.
It is also argued by some people that a Common Law right to bear and own weapons exists because in the past men were permitted to own and bear arms and a Common Law right developed accordingly. Whether this is true or not is irrelevant. A Common Law right can
be removed by statute and indeed the vast majority of our law today is Statute law. Our present gun laws are all statute based.
What the position should be in a free society
In my perfect world a man would be able to purchase a gun and ammunition in England as easily as he might buy a pound of potatoes. Similarly, a man should be able to carry any
other weapon or implement he chooses. He should have the right to keep and carry weapons not merely for self-defence, but because otherwise arms are left in the hands of governments and criminals and denied to the ordinarily law-abiding citizen. Not only should a man be able to own a gun (or any other weapon) he should be able to do so without accounting for it to the police. What, you say, anyone able to own a gun and no licences to boot? Would not that result in Britain being turned into the Wild West? The answer is no. Consider this, at present there are plenty of guns in private hands in Britain, whether held illegally or legally, yet gun crime remains rare in – 39 in England and Wales in 2009 (http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2010/jan/21/murders-drop-home-office-figures). Much more of a problem were knife and other sharp instrument (for example, broken bottle) murders which totalled 255 for the same year.
Even if all guns were made illegal, there would still be a large and by all accounts increasing number of illegally held guns in private hands. Now comes the clincher. The
vast majority of gun crime is committed with illegally held guns. In other words
the present wearisome system of licensing and the penal conditions of security under
which guns must be stored on private premises have next to no effect on solving
If guns were allowed to everyone without restriction, the situation would be essentially the
same as it is today. Gun crime would be committed with weapons which were registered. But would not more guns mean more gun crime? That presumes there would be a massive increase in gun ownership. This is far from being certain. Before serious legal restrictions on gun ownership in Britain were enacted, gun ownership was not the norm. Nor does the ownership of a gun mean the owner will habitually carry it any more than the near universal ownership of lethal knives has meant that most people carry such knives. It is also worth reflecting on the fact that even criminals in Britain rarely use guns, despite their widespread availability in our larger cities. If criminals do not routinely use them to kill and wound, why should we believe the law abiding citizen will?
Generally, it does not matter if people are not policed because, Man being a social animal, will not normally act in a fatally harmful way to others. Moreover, in a very law abiding society such as ours, there is less chance of seriously socially disruptive behaviour than in most, perhaps all, other societies. The English have a remarkably low murder rate generally (about 800 a year in a population of 60 million) and always have done. Some years ago, the Canadian criminologist Elliott Leyton published a study of murder in England entitled Men of Blood. This analysed English murders from mediaeval times to the present. Leyton found that the murder rate at any time was abnormally low. The paucity of English murder is not the result of a careful control of weapons through the ages, especially guns, for as mentioned above for much of our history weapons were available. The only rational explanation for it is that there is something in the English
character and society, that has made extreme personal violence rare. If any people
can be trusted to own weapons the English can.
That guns do not equal mass homicide can also be seen from the example of Canada where seven million guns are owned legally in a population of 30 million. They have a higher rate of gun killing than England, but it is still very low. Switzerland with its citizen army with all males of military age having a gun at home is another example of widespread ownership with a low gun crime rate. If you want a lethal weapon you can always get one quite legitimately because there are so many things which will do. The Government bans commando style knives? No problem, you just go to your local hardware store and buy a decent 6″ blade cook’s knife. Or why not make yourself an old-fashioned cheese cutter out of cheesewire with a couple of pieces of wood to act as grips and Bob’s your uncle once you have the wire wound around someone’s neck. The state trying to outlaw lethal weapons is like the state trying to outlaw pornography in the age of the internet.