Gun control — restrictions on gun ownership — was not a common or popular phenomena in Europe until after the First World War. One of the most influential gun control laws was instituted in England and Wales in 1920. It has been the basis for a great deal of restrictions on the private ownership of firearms around the world, both in the Commonwealth countries and in Europe. These restrictions were not designed to protect the public from criminals. Rather, they were designed to protect the ruling class from revolution . . .
Colin Greenwood and Joyce Lee Malcolm are the two foremost scholars on the history of firearms controls in England and Wales. From A Study of Armed Crime and Firearms Control in England and Wales by Colin Greenwood, page 246:
How, then, should policy on firearms controls be affected by the facts produced? The system of registering all firearms to which Section I applies as well as licensing the individual takes up a large part of the police time involved and causes a great deal of trouble and inconvenience.
The voluminous records so produced appear to serve no useful purpose. In none of the cases examined in this study was the existence of these records of any assistance in detecting a crime and no one questioned during the course of the study could establish the value of the system of registering weapons.
It was not until much later that Greenwood discovered the purpose of the English firearms registration laws. They were passed to facilitate firearms confiscation in the event of civil unrest or revolution. From Colin Greenwood [The term “Constitutionalists” below means British Constitutionalists]:
Constitutionalists might argue about whether in Britain, Statute law can over-ride the basic principles of the Common Law, but in 1920 the Government of Britain was in fear of revolution and documents such as the. Cabinet Diaries reveal debates about the number of aircraft available for use against insurgents within the British Isles. In that climate, the registration of firearms (other than shotguns) was imposed for the purpose of “ensuring that all arms are available for redistribution to friends of the government”.
Extensive research by Professor Joyce Lee Malcolm buttresses what Colin Greenwood found. From Guns and Violence, the English Experience, page 162:
Second, the Firearms Act of 1920, which took away the traditional right of individuals to be armed, was not passed to reduce or prevent armed crime or gun accidents. It was passed because the government was afraid of rebellion and keen to control access to guns.
The British government did not have to invent new law. It already had an example that it had been using for 40 years, in India, as a prophylactic against revolt there.
The British Crown took over the governing of India from the East India Company after the mutiny or revolt that occurred in 1857-58. Immediate restrictions on the ownership of arms were put into effect. Restrictions on the ownership and use of Arms were codified into law in 1877. From statutoryy-law.knoji.com:
Before 1857 there was no gun control law in India. Any Indian could own any weapon of any caliber. After the mutiny things changed as the British decided that the time had come to restrict Indians from owning weapons and hence the first seeds of arms control were sowed.
The 1877 law has a several similarities to the Firearms Act of 1920.
1. The ownership of pistols and rifles were immediately reduced to a privilege, which could only be obtained by asking the government for permission. [ED: The 1877 law included all arms. Perhaps the difference is due to the large number of sporting shotguns owned by the British aristocracy.]
2. A reason had to be given for owning the arms.
3. The license could be denied at the discretion of the authorities.
In practise very few Indians were able to obtain licenses to own and use firearms, while nearly all Europeans were able to obtain them easily. I have a picture of famous geologist, a relative on my childrens’ maternal side, with a rifle in an Indian jungle, while he was employed there in the 1920’s.
The Indian arms act of 1877 was successful in controlling proliferation of guns in India and hardly .5% of Indians were issued gun licenses. In a way unbridled owning of guns as protected by the 2nd amendment in the USA never happened. The British were thus successful in keeping the local Indian population unarmed.
It has taken a hundred years of incremental tightening of the bureaucratic and legislative screws in England and Wales to reduce the number of people with permits to 783, 000, of which 582,000 are shotgun licenses. That is about 1.3 percent of the population.
The percentage of English and Welsh who owned firearms in 1920 was small compared to the United States. The vast majority of people did not hunt, and the crime rate at the time the 1920 law passed was incredibly low; far, far lower than it is today.
In contrast, in India in 1857, at least in some cities, most men went about armed. “Everyone,” observed Frayer, “in Lucknow in those days (pre-annexation) went about armed.”
In spite of the differences between the implementation of the acts in India versus England and Wales, the purpose was the same. Protect the rulers from revolt. It appears that gun control in England and Wales was a cultural implant from colonial India.
©2016 by Dean Weingarten: Permission to share is granted when this notice is included.
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