American Society of Criminology Meeting Paper: Lessons from the United Kingdom on Firearms Bans, Homicide, and Access

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 U.K., handguns are illegal and a person needs to get a certificate — and prove they have a good reason — to own a rifle or shotgun. Anyone convicted of a crime cannot touch a gun for 5 years. There are 0.07 gun homicides per every 100,000 people.
Photo from

(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.
Figure from

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.
Figure from

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.

Homicides in England and Wales TableSo, 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.

Change in Homicide Rate and Proportion of Homicides by Shooting in England Figure

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.


  1. Excellent summary and explanation of the firearm laws and homicide rate in the U.K.

    It is also important to note that historically the U.K. has always been less lethal criminally than America. Many reasons could be a factor — firearms are just one minor one.

    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.

    In America, the trend has been neighborhood guns or community guns. Criminals leave the firearms stashed in empty lots, vacant buildings, etc in order to avoid being caught with them. When the gun is needed, it is simply borrowed and returned.

    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.

    Given the ease (really it isn’t that hard) to make firearms or to steal them (300M in country) or our porous borders (how many TONS of drugs are smuggled in each year) I think the focus shouldn’t be on the guns but the criminals.

    We need to lock up the violent felons unable to abide by society terms and work to prevent criminals from being made by addressing the cause; poverty, education, employment, illegal drugs, etc.


  2. Reblogged this on John Smith 223 and commented:
    I was thinking of writing about the question of whether the nearly complete ban on handguns in the UK reduced the homicide rate. Gun Control 2.0 did a better job answering this than I could have.


  3. Not sure I understand the purpose of calling something a “paper” from the ASC without citing the conference at which it was or was planning to be presented, and then include the work of Lott who is not an ASC member to support your commentary.


    • Sorry for the confusion as to when the paper was presented. The paper in question, by Gibson and Tilley of the University College London, was presented at the annual meeting of the American Society of Criminology in November 2013. I wrote about the paper in January 2014. I did a series of posts based on papers I heard presented at that conference and so neglected to indicate the specific conference because it was part of that series.

      As to format, I usually wrote an introductory section about why I thought the issue covered by the paper is important and then a section about the paper itself. This entry mirrors that approach.

      I don’t know why I should be restricted to only citing ASC members in my post. I clearly identify Lott’s institutional affiliation.

      Beyond that, I’m not sure I understand the purpose of your comment.


      • The purpose of my comment was to elicit from you what should have been made clear very early in your commentary. Yes, I’m sure Lott appreciates your honorarily lumping him in with a discipline which is not his. Being an economist and not a criminologist, nor an ASC, I’m sure he would appreciate it a great deal.


      • Seems you have two purposes: One to raise a question about when the paper which stimulated my post was presented. That is a question easily addressed. Having written many posts about paper I heard at the November 2013 meeting, I did not think to state when it was presented. And, really, that seems to be a minor point. Does it matter if it was presented in 2012, 2013, or 2014? I don’t think so.

        Two to point out that John Lott is not a criminologist or member of the American Society of Criminology and so I should not have mentioned data he compiled? I myself am not a criminologist, so should I have not mentioned the data I compiled?

        Many scholars who write about the issue of guns are not criminologists (David Hemenway, David Kopel, Gary Wintemute, and many others). So, I should not mention anyone other than criminologists who are members of the ASC in any post which concerns a paper presented at the ASC meetings? That seems quite odd to me and I don’t know what purpose it would serve.

        It seems to me there is something more motivating you to take time to write a comment on a 2 year old blog post. Perhaps in the interest of honesty you should just come out and say it?


      • In the interest of honesty, I was trying to determine when the paper was presented. I do historical research in this area. Actually, if one is interested in what papers are being presented and who is offering up a critique of the findings in said papers on blogs rather than in journals where they might find a wider, more knowledgeable audience, it actually does matter. I simply found it interesting that you embraced the findings of a non-criminologist whose work has been determined to be highly flawed by his peers and by the National Academy of Sciences while critiquing the work of a criminologist whose wok has not been so harshly judged. In the interest of honesty, you may have mentioned that about Lott. Kopel, likewise is an attorney with no standing among criminologists. He’s not regarded as a social scientist, but as a pro-gun legal advocate involved in bringing lawsuits in the interest of the gun lobby, not in advancing the frontiers of an academic discipline. You seem to think pro-gun advocacy is the same as criminology. It is not. One is an academic field of social science and rigorous inquiry; the other is not. My comment timing is irrelevant.


      • Mine is not a criminology blog, and nothing about it suggests that it is. I am sorry you read criminology in the title of my post and inferred that you would find a criminology blog. I draw from many disciplines as well as academic and non-academic authors in my thinking about gun culture.

        You allege that I critique “the work of a criminologist whose wok has not been so harshly judged.” What criminologist is that?

        The work of David Kopel I cite is from the encyclopedia Guns in American Society, edited by Gregg Lee Carter, a sociologist at Bryant University. Is there something in particular about the specific ideas I use from Kopel in this case that is incorrect?

        Likewise, if there is something incorrect about the data I got from John Lott, please let me know. One thing that gives me confidence in drawing on his data in this case is the parallel I mention between his finding and that of David Kennedy and Franklin Zimring – both card carrying members of the ASC!


  4. If you’re using John Lott data, you may or may not be aware his work is not vetted. He’s been harshly criticized for his sloppy methodology which has cause him rejections from peer review, although he tried to claim otherwise. In already documented cases he’s made bogus claims at which he’s been caught red-handed. I would be rather distrustful of using anything he considers “evidence.” His most recent monograph was torpedoed recently. I tried to find a single journal review of his latest offerings using my school’s database and could find none. What I did find in the mainstream was this:


    • As I can see you have a bone to pick with John Lott and not with me, I will reply one more time FWIW.

      I present two graphs by John Lott compiled from data from the Home Office. You have yet to raise any specific objection to the way that data was compiled.

      I follow those graphs by presenting a table and a graph that I personally compiled from data provided by the Home Office. Likewise, you do not raise any specific objection to that data or its presentation.

      I note parallels between what the Home Office data show and what we find in Boston and New York based on work by David Kennedy and Franklin Zimring. You do not comment either way on that.

      You have yet to raise any specific objection to my use of David Kopel’s work on the history of firearms regulation in Britain.

      And you do not say what “real” criminologist I have criticized in my post.

      I will correct the post to note when the ASC paper was presented, and if you wish to address actual errors in my post I welcome you to do so.


  5. “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.” ”

    This is misleading. In this context “cases which do not result in conviction” means those where the person actually responsible for the death is not convicted on the charge in question. It does not mean those where no suspect has ever been identified and/or brought to court in the first place. Even the House of Commons source you cite states that, “This reduces the apparent number of homicides by between 13 per cent and 15 per cent.” Regardless of that, the adjusted “offences currently recorded as homicide” are always reported alongside the “offences initially recorded as homicide” so the difference is clear.

    What this practice reflects is that cultural difference that British police tend to treat any unexplained death as a homicide, and work down from that. Even blindingly obvious cases of self defence will be treated as murder in the first instance, but may not result in a charge, let alone a jury deciding what actually happened.


  6. I wish you had included a chart and date from 1968, when the UK first implemented tough gun laws. If you look at a chart from then, you will see a sharp increase in the murder rate, and it continued after the 1997 law was implemented until, as you point out, it started decreasing only in more recent years.


  7. I am seriously late to this party, being a new reader, but there is another factor to consider. Namely that (and I’m working from memory of an article I read several years ago) in the period 2003-2008, even while the murder rate in England & Wales was dropping, the number of non-fatal shootings increased dramatically, as did non-fatal stabbings. IIRC, shootings doubled and stabbings tripled, but it may have been the other way round.
    That has certain implications, most notably that you can’t credibly attribute a drop in firearm homicides to tightened gun laws, when the number of shooting incidents (albeit it ones in which the victims attend getting killed) is soaring.


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