Although the British government imposed various gun control measures throughout the 20th century, the most dramatic moves followed two mass shootings. In1987, 27 year-old Michael Ryan dressed up as “Rambo” and carrying (among other weapons) an M1 Carbine and a Chinese version of the AK-47, shot to death 16 people (and himself) in and around Hungerford.
In response to this, the British Parliament passed the 1988 Firearms Act, which imposed a great number of restrictions, the most notable of which was a complete ban on self-loading center fire and pump action rifles.
(In the entry on “United Kingdom-History of Gun Laws since 1900” in the encyclopedia Guns in American Society, David Kopel notes that “Home Secretary Douglas Hurd later admitted that the government prepared the provisions of the 1988 Firearms Act long before Hungerford and had been waiting for the right moment to introduce them” [p. 845]. This was mimicked by United States Senator Dianne Feinstein, who admitted that she had been working on a proposal to ban assault weapons for over a year prior to the Sandy Hook massacre in December 2012.)
In 1996, 43 year-old Thomas Hamilton massacred 16 children and 1 teacher (and himself) at a preschool in Dunblane, Scotland using 4 handguns. As a result, the 1997 Firearms Act was passed which banned private ownership of handguns. As Kopel notes, since 1921 legal handguns had been registered with the British government, so law abiding citizens had to surrender their guns to the government in exchange for a scheduled payment (p. 846).
Today, only certain shotguns, black power guns, and manually-loaded single shot pistols and rifles can be legally owned, are even those are heavily regulated. Understandably, as there as many proponents of banning firearms in the United States, the experience of the UK draws considerable interest. I have not fully examined the case of the UK in comparison to the US, but there are all sorts of reasons why any simple comparisons ought to be avoided.
For example, after noting the UK’s lower homicide rates, many people point to the higher rate of “violent crime” in the UK compared to the US as an offsetting consideration. But the way “violent crime” is defined differs between the two countries. Even the way “homicide” is counted in England and Wales differs from the US: they “exclude any cases which do not result in conviction, or where the person is not prosecuted on grounds of self defense or otherwise.”
Such an exclusion in US homicide statistics could drop the number of homicides in 2012 by half, and the rate from 4.7 per 100,000 to 2.3. Which is not to say that the US should count homicides the way the Home Office does (to the contrary), but to highlight the differences in the way statistics are collected and presented.
The homicide rate in the UK was lower than the US before the rifle and handgun bans of the 1980s and 1990s, so to connect those bans to the UK’s lower homicide rates relative to the US is nonsensical. To me it makes more sense to examine processes taking place within each country, then see if lessons learned in one country may be applicable to another.
As reported by the Home Office, in England and Wales (Scotland and Ireland are counted separately), the overall homicide rate in the 1990s (after the self-loading rifle ban in 1988) fluctuated up and down, showing no clear pattern. Then following the handgun ban in 1997, the homicide rate increased every year from 1998 through 2003. It then began a basically steady fall from 2003 to 2010.
John R. Lott, Jr. of the Crime Prevention Research Center attributes the decline to a significant increase in the number of police officers in 2003/2004 (really, from 2001 onward). Although it is too early to say whether a new trend is emerging, these tables show a decline in police beginning in 2010 and an increase in the homicide rate from 2010 to 2011.
However, even individual year homicide data needs to be interpreted cautiously. As the Home Office’s report notes, homicide data for 2000/01 includes 58 Chinese nationals who collectively suffocated in a lorry en route into the UK; 2002/03 includes 172 victims of medical doctor/serial killer Harold Shipman; 2003/04 includes 20 cockle pickers who drowned in Morecambe Bay; and 2005/06 includes 52 victims of the July 7th London bombings (see notes to Table 1.03, p. 34). Even removing these special cases, however, the number and rate of homicide in England and Wales was higher every year after the handgun ban until 2009/10, as the following table that I compiled from the Home Office data shows.
So, something other than gun laws – perhaps something about policing and not the outright ban on handguns – seems to explain the homicide rate in England and Wales. There are clear parallels here to the decline in homicide in Boston (recalling David Kennedy’s work, as I have written about previously) and New York City (see Franklin Zimring’s The City That Became Safe: New York’s Lessons for Urban Crime and Its Control).
For me another important question has to do with the method of killing. If the homicide rate goes up after a handgun ban, does this mean that guns are being displaced by other weapons in homicides? If the homicide rate goes down 7 years after a handgun ban, does this mean that the supply of guns available to criminals is drying up (indicated, perhaps, by the proportion of homicides involving guns is going down)?
The table I produced above attempts to address these questions. In 8 of 10 years, when the homicide rate changed, the proportion of homicides that were committed using guns changed in the same direction. That is, most of the time, when the homicide rate goes up, gun homicides go up, and vice-versa.
Looking at just the percentage of homicides that were committed by shooting, the line graph above shows at least two patterns. First, from 2001/02 to 2008/09 a general pattern of decline. Second, in 5 of 10 years the proportion of homicides by shooting INCREASED from the previous year.
So, the bottom line seems to be that banning rifles and handguns in England and Wales did not clearly lead to a unilateral reduction in homicides, or in the proportion of homicides committed with guns.
This raises the issue of black markets for guns. Banning guns clearly does not mean that criminals will have no access to guns, though it certainly makes it more difficult. Here I come to the American Society of Criminology meeting paper presentation that got me thinking about guns in the UK in the first place. [UPDATE: This paper was presented at the November 2013 meeting of the American Society of Criminology in Atlanta.]
“The Impact of Weapon Availability on Firearm Selection: Lessons from the United Kingdom,” by Kate Gibson and Nick Tilley, University College London.
Kate Gibson’s work examines how criminals respond to weapons bans. She finds a great deal of creativity in securing functioning firearms, including reactivating previously disabled firearms or modifying antique weapons or even manufacturing firearms at home. In addition, re-use of firearms is key to the black market for guns in England and Wales. I was fascinated to learn that there are armorers who act as weapons suppliers – not selling guns to criminals but LOANING them out for a fee. I have not heard of this in the United States, which does not mean it doesn’t exist of course. But it may be that the lower availability of handguns generally in the UK compared to the US makes loaning more viable/necessary.
In the end, those who propose banning rifles and/or handguns in the United States need to think very seriously about the experience of England and Wales, since there is such a massive supply of guns in the US to be re-circulated, re-used, and re-activated (not to mentioned the vast possibilities for home-made guns here). I believe the maxim that “demand creates its own supply” applies to guns as well as to drugs, alcohol, and other banned products.
Does that mean nothing should be done? Of course not. I am very interested in seeing something done about crime guns. So are many people, gun owners and gun haters alike. I often see the name, “Mayors Against Illegal Guns” and think, what law abiding citizen is for illegal guns? But as the founder of MAIG Michael Bloomberg has repeatedly shown, he is not simply against illegal guns, he is for making more and more guns illegal. Efforts to cut down on illegal guns and the violence typically associated with them, without making criminals of law-abiding gun owners, is the key. Entirely banning whole categories of guns, as the UK has done and some Americans want to do, does not seem to me to be the answer.