The Late Nineteenth Century

In 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.[31] 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.[32] Revolver technology advanced rapidly, and by the 1890s, revolver design had progressed about as far as it could, with subsequent developments involving fairly minor tinkering.

As revolvers 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 frightening innovation.[33]

Revolvers were also getting less expensive, and concerns began to grow about the availability to criminals of cheap German revolvers.[34] 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."[35]

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.

Prejudice 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."[36] 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 special."

Revolvers 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.

The Walter 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 born.

Hearst's [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.

The 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.[37] In other contexts, displaying one thing while talking about another would be decried as fraud.

As the 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."[38] 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."[39] 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 British cities.

The 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.[40] 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 gun owners.









[31] See Clive Emsley, Crime and Society in England 1750-1900, at 36 (1987).

[32] See Edward C. Ezell, Handguns of the World 29 (1981). The Colt factory in London used interchangeable parts and was the first mass production gun factory outside the United States. See id. at 31.

[33] See Colin Greenwood, Firearms Control: A Study of Armed Crime and Firearms Control in England and Wales 18 (1971). Breechloaders load from the rear of the gun, not from the muzzle, thus they are usually much quicker to reload. All modern guns, including revolvers, are breechloaders.

[34] See Emsley, supra note 31, at 91-92, 131.

[35]Wilber Miller, Cops and Bobbies: Police Authority in New York and London 1830-1870, at 115 (1977) (citation omitted).

[36] See B. Bruce-Briggs, The Great American Gun War, The Pub. Interest, Fall 1976, at 50. Cf. Kelley v. R.G. Indus., Inc., 497 A.2d 1143 (Md. 1985). The Kelly case imposed strict liability on the manufacturer of a small handgun because the gun was supposedly only useful for crime. See id. Evidence of crime utility based in part on sales representative's statement: "If your store is anywhere near a ghetto area, these ought to sell real well." Id.

[37] For a collection of state and city-level data, see David B. Kopel, Rational Basis Analysis of "Assault Weapon" Prohibition, 20 J. Contemp. L. 381, 406-13 (1994).

[38]Greenwood, supra note 33, at 25. The 1870 Gun License Act was repealed in 1967 as part of a comprehensive revision of gun laws. There were a few gun controls of little general interest during the mid-nineteenth century. For example, section 4 of the Vagrancy Act criminalized possession of an offensive weapon with intent to commit a felony.

[39]Roger D. McGrath, Gunfighters, Highwaymen, and Vigilantes 247 (1984).

[40] See Jan A. Stevenson, Firearms Legislation in Great Britain, Handgunner, Mar.-Apr. 1988, at, 7, 9Report on the Firearms (Amendment) Bill 41 (Michael Yardley & Jan A. Stevenson, eds., 2d ed. 1998). Until recent decades, the military had the same attitude, viewing civil shooters as potential good shooters for the military, and viewing civilian target shooting facilities as good places for training regular and reserve forces. Cadmus, Ranges-Inspection and Use, 35 Guns Rev. 834 (1995). "Cadmus" is a British gun rights author. The original Cadmus, from Greek myth, slew a dragon, was the first man to combine vowels with consonants, and founded the city of Thebes.