We live in peaceful times – at least compared to the past thousand-ish years. Crime, especially personal violence, has been reduced significantly since the 13th century (though not always continuously). The drop looks something like this:
What explains the drastic decline in violent crime, specifically between 1500 and 1900? Why has crime spiked up (moderately) from 1900 – 2010? The widely preferred explanation for the fall in crime – particularly homicide – is referred to as the “civilizing process”, which claims that criminal breaking points can be attributed to the growth of centralised power (i.e. state power), which created more structure and stability in regional areas.
The conventional wisdom…attributes the decline in personal violence to the “civilizing process” first suggested by Elias (1939) who hypothesized that the primary cause was the transformation of Europe from a large number of fiefdoms in the Middle Ages to a small number of large, centralized nation states under a single monarch. The centralised state instituted and enforced a monopoly on violence, known as the king’s peace.
To this day, the ‘civilizing process’ remains the longest-running, widely accepted theory and continues to shape crime and policing policy. But, despite its acceptance, there are some very notable flaws in the theory, including the fact that much of the evidence shapes up to disprove the thesis:
Belgium and the Netherlands were at the forefront of the decline, yet they lacked strong centralized governments. When Sweden joined the trend, it wasn’t on the heels of an expansion in state power either. Conversely, the Italian states were in the rearguard of the decline in violence, yet their governments wielded an enormous bureaucracy and police force…
…the civilizing process theory is not consistent with the rise in violence between 1200 and 1500, it does not explain the sudden and precipitous decline and reversal of trend that occurred in the 16th and 17th centuries, and it is not consistent with the 1793 reversal of trend.
A new paper from Carlisle E. Moody published last month provides an alternative theory last century’s decline in violence. The paper, “Firearms and the Decline of Violence in Europe: 1200-2010”, finds that the sudden historical drops in crime are consistent with the “invention and proliferation of compact, concealable, ready-to-use firearms” which “caused potential assailants to recalculate the probability of a successful assault and seek alternatives to violence.”
And unlike the civilizing process theory, Moody’s firearms theory remains consistent with the evidence and breaks in violence. As concealed weapons became more available historically, crime rate dropped radically. (Bolded mine.)
Homicide was increasing before the invention of concealable firearms and decreasing after. While there may be many other theories, the sudden and spectacular decline in violence around 1505 and again around 1610-1621 is consistent with the theory that the invention and proliferation of concealable firearms was responsible, at least in part, for the decline in homicide. The landscape of personal violence was suddenly and permanently altered by the introduction of a new technology. The handgun was the ultimate equalizer. The physically strong could no longer feel confident of domination over the weak.
Some of these arguments may sound familiar; they’re the ones those crazies over the States tend to go on about - guns ‘equalize’ the playing field regardless of physical strength and ‘psyche out’ violent perpetrators who might be more willing to attack their victims if they knew they were unarmed.
But according to the report, those crazies have some strong points. The report cites several studies which found that the possibility that a victim might be armed deters criminals from acting:
Even in the United States today, criminals are reluctant to encounter armed victims. In 1981 Wright and Rossi interviewed 1874 incarcerated felons in ten states. Eighty-one percent agreed with the statement, “A smart criminal always tries to find out if his potential victim is armed.” Thirty-four percent report being, “scared off, shot at, wounded or captured by an armed victim. (Wright and Rossi 1986, pp. 132-155) Using the same data, Kleck found that, among criminals who had committed violent crimes or burglaries, 42 percent had been deterred during an attack by an armed victim and 56 percent agreed that, “most criminals are more worried about meeting an armed victim than they are about running into the police.”(Kleck 1997, p. 180)
Perhaps, then, we might admit (based on evidence, consistency and lack of other credible theories) that firearms reduced violence historically; but in the modern era, guns cause more violence than they deter. But that’s not the case either:
The government in England has been placing increasingly stringent controls on guns especially handguns, since 1920, reducing both the actual and the effective supply of firearms. (Malcolm 2002) The homicide rate in England in 1920 was 0.84 and the assault rate was 2.39. In 1999, the corresponding rates were 1.44 and 419.29. Thus both the homicide and assault rates increased as the effective supply of handguns declined.
That’s a 17,544% increase in England’s assault crime over the past 100 years. In truth, there is no explicit correlation between gun control laws and murder rates between countries (Switzerland and Israel “have rates of homicide that are low despite rates of home firearm ownership that are at least as high as those in the United States.”) It is the case that handguns used in crimes in the UK have doubled since they were banned in 1997. Guns can’t account fully for the drop in crime throughout the 20th century, nor can they account fully for the rise in violent crime over the past 100 years, but there is no doubt that accessibility to firearms has worked as a successful deterrence against criminals in progressive societies and that bans have ensured that any handguns in England are only falling into criminal hands.
Should we proliferate handguns around England tomorrow? Probably not. (Obviously we should begin with firearm training sessions – safety first!) But liberalizing gun laws should not be off the table. Historically, they’ve earned it.