The 2,311th Meeting of the Society

January 25, 2013 at 8:00 PM

Powell Auditorium at the Cosmos Club

Sticking To Our Guns

Our Basic Right or a Public Peril?

Joyce Lee Malcolm

Professor of Law
George Mason University


About the Lecture

The shootings at Newtown revived an emotional debate over whether ordinary citizens are safer having firearms for self-defense or whether guns in their hands are a danger to public safety. Are more “gun-free zones” the answer, more restrictions on gun-ownership, or the reverse, more citizens armed to protect themselves and each other? The right of Americans to keep and bear arms, our Second Amendment, is a legacy from Great Britain yet in the last century our two countries have taken opposite approaches to the issue of public safety. This talk will focus on the paths taken by each country and the impact for their people.

About the Speaker

JOYCE LEE MALCOLM is a Professor of Law at George Mason University. She is a historian and constitutional scholar active in the area of constitutional history, focusing on the development of individual rights in Great Britain and America. She has written many books and articles on gun control, the Second Amendment, and individual rights. Her work was cited several times in the recent U.S. Supreme Court opinion in District of Columbia v. Heller. She has taught at Princeton University, Bentley College, Boston University, and Northeastern University. She was a Senior Advisor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Security Studies Program and also was a Visiting Scholar at Massachusetts Center for Renaissance Studies. She was a Bye Fellow at Robinson College, Cambridge University. She earned an BA at Barnard College and an MA and PhD at Brandeis University. She has published numerous articles in scholarly journals and seven books. Her most recent book, “Peter’s War: A New England Slave Boy and the American Revolution” was a Pulitzer nominee. She is a frequent contributor to the editorial pages of national media, including The Wall Street Journal, The Financial Times, USA Today, and The Boston Globe.


President John Ingersoll called the 2,311th meeting to order at 8:22pm January 25, 2012 in the Powell Auditorium of the Cosmos Club. Mr. Ingersoll announced the order of business and introduced five new members of the Society, including the speaker of the evening.

The minutes of the 2,310th meeting were read and approved.

Mr. Ingersoll then introduced the speaker, Ms. Joyce Lee Malcolm of George Mason University. Ms. Malcolm spoke on "Sticking To Our Guns: Our Basic Right or a Public Peril?"

Ms. Malcolm began by discussing the modern policy divide between America and Great Britain despite a shared legacy of an individual right of the people to arm themselves for self-defense. She noted that, in 2004, UK Radio Four's Today Program invited listeners to suggest a new statute to be introduced to Parliament. Thousands of people suggested they be allowed to protect their homes and property with force since, at the time, if you harmed someone breaking into your home you could be tried for assault. This winning suggestion was described as "ludicrous, brutal, unworkable, and blood-stained" by the Member of Parliament tasked with introducing it as legislation. Ms. Malcolm also noted the 1987 attack on Eric Butler, who was charged with carrying an offensive weapon he used to defend himself when attacked in a subway car. She explained that the list of offensive weapons is extensive and includes non-lethal methods of self-defense such as pepper spray.

Ms. Malcolm contrasted this approach with the 2008 American case of District of Columbia v. Heller, where the Supreme Court affirmed that the Second Amendment to the Constitution protects an individual right to self-defense and specifically the right to keep a handgun in the home for that use. Prior to this decision, there had been a strict handgun ban in the District of Columbia since 1976. Just two years later, in McDonald v. Chicago, the Supreme Court also applied the Second Amendment as an individual right to cities and states. Historically, the majority of Americans have believed in the individual right to be armed, exercising it even when vigorous debate surrounded the issue of individual versus collective rights, she said.

Ms. Malcolm explained that the right to individual self-defense has long been considered by philosophers as a primary law of nature. Most notably by William Blackstone, she said, who discussed what he called the three great and primary rights of personal security, personal liberty, and private property. John Locke also wrote about self-defense, justifying forceful action even against thieves, she noted.

Ms. Malcolm continued by noting that there have been many gun control laws introduced in American history, such as New York's Sullivan Law in 1911. Authorities, concerned about immigrants and anarchists, wanted to control the type of people who were entitled to be armed. She also noted efforts in the South to prevent blacks from acquiring firearms. The National Firearm Act of 1934 outlawed certain weapons being used at the time by notable criminals, the Gun Control Act of 1969 limited mail order sales, purchases by felons, and the import of military weapons, and the Brady Act of 1983 added background checks. Further, the Assault Weapon Ban passed in 1994 and expired in 2004, though two studies done by the Federal government found this act had no effect on the crime rate during its ten year span.

Ms. Malcolm explained that we do not know exactly how many firearms are owned in America because there is no registration process, but that an estimate can be made from the yearly number of background checks performed by the FBI during gun purchases. In 2009, this number was approximately fourteen million. Despite concerns that an increased number of firearms sold in America would increase crime, the violent crime rate has been declining for almost twenty years. In 1991, violent crime statistics peaked at 758/100,000 people compared to 2009 when it was 429/100,000 people, a decrease of almost half its initial value.

Ms. Malcolm believes that the American perspective has generally allowed citizens to protect themselves but that the British have instead opted for public order over private safety. This prioritization, originally intended to avoid an arms race between criminals and their victims, placed the burden of protecting individuals directly on the police. In 1920, amidst fears of potential revolution in the aftermath of World War I, the British government passed an act that required a license from the police to purchase a firearm. The license applicant had to provide a good reason to own a firearm and confirm that they were personally fit to own one, she said. However, the police Home Office issued a series of classified guidance policies on what constituted a sufficiently good reason and by 1969 self-defense was no longer included. In 1953, the Prevention of Crime Act, aimed at juvenile delinquents, outlawed the carrying of offensive weapons in a public place. However, anything intended for use to defend yourself could also be considered an offensive weapon and there were potentially strict consequences for doing so, she said. In 1967, the legal standard of self-defense was modified such that citizens were no longer expected to retreat but the act of self-defense had to be reasonable under the circumstances, as decided by a judge and jury after the incident. Finally, in response to the Dunblane school massacre, the 1997 Firearms Act effectively outlawed handguns in Britain and was followed by a campaign to register, confiscate, and destroy existing handguns. Ms. Malcolm noted that despite these efforts, being mugged in London is now six to seven times more likely than in Harlem, NY, and that within ten years of the handgun ban, crime with handguns had doubled. For the first time in their history, some units of the British police now carry firearms, she noted.

Ms. Malcolm concluded by stating that she believes it is reasonable to allow people to protect themselves with firearms and that this not only works to reduce crime but acts as a deterrent to potential crime. She claimed that no government can protect all its citizens in potentially desperate situations and that insisting that citizens remain unarmed is simply unworkable.

With that, she closed her talk and Mr. Ingersoll invited questions.

Someone wondered about the implication of causation between the increase in guns and decrease in violent crime since 1991, pointing out that a similarly strong correlation can be found with the increasing number of abortions recorded since the passing of Roe v. Wade in 1973. Ms. Malcolm clarified that she did not mean to imply it was only the greater access to firearms that contributed to the decrease of violent crime and there are potentially many contributing factors such as better law enforcement training and social programs. The argument she intended to present is that the crime rate did not increase with the increased availability of firearms, as was feared by critics at the time.

Another question concerned the details of the British gun control arguments. Ms. Malcolm explained that the British feel that America is still an uncivilized country, though they now have a higher rate of violent crime in every category except homicide. She believes that the majority of the country's residents are upset that they are unable to protect themselves, but the governing class are sympathetic only to the point of introducing legislation, believing that ordinary people cannot be trusted with firearms and that self-defense is effectively vigilantism.

After the question and answer period, Mr. Ingersoll thanked the speaker, made the usual housekeeping announcements, and invited guests to apply for membership. At 9:56 pm, President John Ingersoll adjourned the 2,311th meeting to the social hour.

Attendance: 55
The weather: Overcast
The temperature: -6°C
Respectfully submitted,

Justin Stimatze,
Recording secretary