the final decades of the last century, Great Britain was
much like the United States in the 1950s. There were
almost no gun laws, and almost no gun crime. The
homicide rate per 100,000 population per year was
between 1.0 and 1.5, declining as the century wore on.
Two technological developments, however, began to work
together to create in some minds the need for gun
control. The first of these was the revolver. Revolvers
had begun to achieve mass popularity when Colonel Samuel
Colt showed off his models at London's 1851 Great
Exhibition of the Works of Industry in All Nations.
Revolver technology advanced rapidly, and by the 1890s,
revolver design had progressed about as far as it could,
with subsequent developments involving fairly minor
got cheaper and better, concern arose regarding the increase
in firepower available to the public. And in fact, the
change from one or two shot weapons to the repeat-firing,
five or six shot revolver represented perhaps the greatest
advance in small arms civilian firepower that has ever
occurred. Compared to the seemingly more benign single-shot
muzzle-loaders of the past, the revolver seemed a
were also getting less expensive, and concerns began to grow
about the availability to criminals of cheap German
Cheap guns were, in some eyes, associated with hated
minority groups. For example, in the late 1860s, the London
Lloyd's Newspaper blamed a crime wave on "foreign
refuse" with their guns and knives. The newspaper stated
that "[t]he revolver's appearance ... we owe to the
importation of reckless characters from America .... The
Fenian [Irish-American] desperadoes have sown weapons of
violence in our poorer districts."
All of these
developments have their parallels in modern United States.
The current popularity of semi-automatic pistols, with a
magazine capacity of thirteen, fifteen, or seventeen rounds,
frightens some people who view the old six-shooter as a
harmless traditional weapon. Furthermore, the fact that
semi-automatics were invented over 100 years ago does not
stop the press from portraying them as dangerous new guns,
just as the revolvers of the 1850s were portrayed as
dangerous new guns in the 1880s.
and discrimination against ethnic groups persist. While
United States gun control advocates do not complain much
about Irish immigrants with guns, they do warn about the
dangers of Blacks armed with "ghetto guns." The derisive
term for inexpensive handguns, "Saturday Night
Specials," has a racist lineage to the term
"niggertown Saturday night."
The phrase "niggertown Saturday night" apparently mixed with
the nineteenth century phrase "suicide special," which is a
cheap single action revolver, to form "Saturday night
were one technological development that began to make some
Britons rethink the desirability of the right to bear arms.
The second development was the growth of the mass
circulation press. Newspapers, like guns, had been around
for quite a while, but the late nineteenth century witnessed
several printing innovations that made printing of vast
quantities of newspapers extremely cheap.
press, patented in England in 1866, introduced stereotype
plates. Printers discovered ways to make sheets of any
desired length, thereby allowing rolls of paper to be fed
into cylinder presses, and greatly accelerating printing
speed. Machines for folding newspapers were brought on-line.
By the late nineteenth century, typesetting machines were
coming into use. All of these developments made possible the
production of low-cost newspapers, which even poor people
could buy every day. As audiences expanded, papers became
increasingly sensationalist, and the "yellow journalism" of
publishers such as the United States' Joseph Pulitzer was
[errata: Pulitzer's] British counterparts were fervently
devoted to sensation, and especially loved lurid crime
stories. In 1883 a pair of armed burglaries in the London
suburbs set off a round of press hysteria about armed
criminals. The press notwithstanding, crime with firearms
was rare. As this Essay will detail, the propensity of the
press to sensationalize what sociologists call "atrocity
tales" to create "moral panics" while demanding greater
government regulation is one of the factors dramatically
increasing the risk that a nation will descend down a
slippery slope; but while media sensationalism can spur
action, media attention is not necessarily sufficient by
itself to produce results. Eighteen-eighty-three did see the
first serious attempt at gun control in many decades, when
Parliament considered and rejected a bill to ban the
"unreasonable" carrying of a concealed firearm. In 1895,
strong pistol controls were rejected by a two to one margin
in the House of Commons.
developments of the British press, and the press attitude
towards crime and guns in the late 19th century, have their
own parallels in the United States today. Television news is
cutting loose its last ties to traditional standards imposed
from the days of print journalism. In the "infotainment"
produced by organizations such as NBC News, depiction of
reality is less important than the production of
entertaining and compelling "news" pieces. Thus, when the
"assault weapon" panic of 1989 broke out, television
journalists paid little attention to whether "assault
weapons" actually were the "weapon of choice" of criminals.
Instead of being on the reality of gun crime, the
focus was on the sensational footage of guns firing full
automatic, while newscasters decried the availability of
semi-automatics. Police statistics show that so-called
assault weapons are used in about 1% of gun crime.
In other contexts, displaying one thing while talking about
another would be decried as fraud.
nineteenth century came to a close in Britain the press had
not as yet persuaded the public to adopt gun controls.
Buyers of any type of gun, from derringers to Gatling guns
faced no background check, no need for police permission,
and no registration. As criminologist Colin Greenwood wrote,
"[a]nyone, be he convicted criminal, lunatic, drunkard or
child, could legally acquire any type of firearm."
Additionally, anyone could carry any gun anywhere. The
English gun crime rate was at its all-time low. A somewhat
similar situation prevailed on the American frontier in the
1880s where everyone who chose to be, was armed, and "[t]he
old, the young, the unwilling, the weak and the female ...
were ... safe from harm."
The frontier crime rates, except for the results of
"voluntary" bar fights among dissolute young men, were less
than a tenth of the rates in modern-day United States and
official attitude about guns was summed up by Prime Minister
Robert Gascoyne-Cecil, the Marquess of Salisbury, who in
1900 said he would "laud the day when there is a rifle in
every cottage in England." Led by the Duke of Norfolk and
the mayors of London and Liverpool, a number of gentlemen
formed a cooperative association that year to promote the
creation of rifle clubs for working men. The Prime Minister
and the rest of the aristocracy viewed the widespread
ownership of rifles by the working classes as an asset to
national security, especially in light of the growing
tension with imperial Germany.
While shotguns were seen as bird-hunting toys of the landed
gentry, rifles were lauded as military arms suitable for
everyone. Yet, within a century, the right to bear arms in
Britain would be well on the road to extinction. The
extinction had little to do with gun ownership itself, but
instead related to the British government's growing mistrust
of the British people, and the apathetic attitude of British