British guns

by Russ Roberts on April 25, 2007

in Crime

The headline in the Washington Post story:

Britain’s Gun Laws Seen as Curbing Attacks

The article begins:

At 9:35 a.m. on a March day in 1996, a disgruntled former scout leader walked into a primary school gym in Dunblane, Scotland, with four guns and killed 16 children and their teacher in Britain’s worst mass shooting. The crime still causes Britons to recoil when they recall the victims, many of them only 5 years old.

That rampage, with guns purchased legally — as were those used in last week’s killings at Virginia Tech
– led to a near-total ban on handguns, and Britain’s current laws are
considered among the most restrictive in the world. Days after the
shooting, hundreds of thousands of people signed petitions demanding
tougher gun control, and weeks later more than 22,000 illegal or
unwanted guns, and nearly 700,000 rounds of ammunition, were turned in
to authorities under a special amnesty.

Although England already had tough restrictions in place, champions of
the gun control laws say the new limits have been vital in keeping
fatal shootings relatively rare. Still, guns continue to proliferate
and the law has not kept firearms out of the hands of some criminals.

The next two paragraphs are about a British gun control advocate, Rebecca Peters, a gun control advocate who says:

"Without the fix, it’s likely we would have had more deadly shooting incidents in the last 10 years."

Could be. The next two paragraphs contain the only facts in the article:

According to government statistics, the number of people killed by
guns has essentially stayed the same, with dips and spikes, as before
the 1997 gun control laws went into effect: There were 55 shooting
deaths in 1995 and 50 last year in England and Wales. By comparison, there were 137 fatal shootings in the District of Columbia last year.

number of crimes in which a handgun was used in England and Wales has
risen from 299 in 1995 to 1,024 last year. Offenses committed with all
types of firearms, including air guns, have also increased.

The rest of the article is about the differences in attitudes between Brits and Americans toward guns and the surprise among Brits that Americans don’t have more restrictive gun laws.

Of course, it’s possible that without the ban on handguns, there would be even more deaths from handguns due to other changes in England other than the ban. But the only facts that are presented in the article suggest that the ban on handguns in England has had little effect at best, or at worst, caused an increase in gun violence in Britain.

Reporters don’t write their own headlines. But based on the facts presented in the article, the headline should have read:

British Gun Laws Seen as Curbing Attacks Despite Lack of Evidence

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nathaniel April 25, 2007 at 2:09 pm

"When government fears the people there is liberty. When the people fear government there is tyranny." -Thomas Jefferson

coyote April 25, 2007 at 2:19 pm

I loved your alternate title. I see ten articles a day that could have a similar title. For example, this:
could easily have had the title "Middle class seen as squeezed and anxious despite lack of evidence"

coyote April 25, 2007 at 2:20 pm

oops, my link above seems to have overrun the space. Try it this way.

Michael April 25, 2007 at 3:31 pm

"There were 55 shooting deaths in 1995 and 50 last year in England and Wales. By comparison, there were 137 fatal shootings in the District of Columbia last year."

The last sentence doesn't present an accurate comparison to gun legislation in England. A legitimate comparison would be to present the number of shootings before and after similar gun legislation in D.C.–whether such legislation promoted or inhibited gun ownership.

As it stands, the author just wants to point out how many people died from gun violence in D.C. without respect to the efficacy of gun laws.

Sam Grove April 25, 2007 at 6:42 pm

"There were 55 shooting deaths in 1995 and 50 last year in England and Wales. By comparison, there were 137 fatal shootings in the District of Columbia last year."

Despite D.C.'s SEVERE restrictions on handguns.

Python April 25, 2007 at 6:47 pm

Although I am pro-gun-freedom, I do have to make a comment here about the differences in England before and after their more restrictive gun laws. It could be that England was already more restrictive in 1997 than we are now. The lack of change in crime rates before and after 1997 could simply represent a diminished return on more restriction. Of course, the article doesn't go that far, but it is possible.

However, if the amount of restriction in England pre-1997 is similar to where we are now, then obviously it is not a remedy for reducing gun crime. Same old song: "more data needed before conclusion can be drawn."

tgc April 25, 2007 at 6:56 pm

Those numbers are only meaningful if they are expressed as a percentage of population…

Adam April 25, 2007 at 9:14 pm

Wow, that was astonishing. The only facts they present are as unhelpful to their argument as could be. And yet there's not even a cursory acknowledgement that they may be wrong.

Isaac Crawford April 26, 2007 at 8:49 am

I blogged briefly about what I see as a basic disconnect with gun control. Having lots of guns around potentially makes certain crimes easier to commit. Imagine the combination of lots of guns on campus with lots of alcohol, hilarity ensues… On the other hand, if one of the teachers or students had a gun on them that day on Va. Tech's campus, things might have turned out quite differently. It's all a matter of what you are willing to risk and what you are trying to guard against.


Tom H April 26, 2007 at 11:27 am

Before 1997 Britain already had restrictive gun laws. I think maybe only .22 pistols and shotguns for farmers were allowed. The number of guns the general population had was tiny. After 1997 as far as I recall they banned the .22 pistols.

True_Liberal April 26, 2007 at 1:05 pm

Shortly after 9-11, I proposed that airlines should be given the authority to issue flight and cabin crews sidearms, if the so decided.

There would be some airlines that would shun the guns completely, some that would always have armed crews, and some that wouldn't tell the passenger in advance if his crew were armed or not.

Then let the market sort it out. Experience would determine which were the safer and mre attractive system.

Al April 26, 2007 at 2:10 pm

I thought we should give all of the passengers large knives in the seat pocket in front of them and forego metal detectors entirely . . .

Anonymous B April 26, 2007 at 5:36 pm

Actually, there was an instance a few years back at the Appalachian Law School where a student went on a shooting rampage and was eventually subdued by two other students who, upon hearing of the circumstance, retrieved their own firearms from their cars. Five people were killed there. Unfortunately, of the 102 stories reported in the mainstream media about that incident, 6 mentioned the firearms used to save lives that day (Lexis Nexis search). Agenda in the mainstream media…. perish the thought!

Bill April 26, 2007 at 5:39 pm

That article was terrible, but didn't it present the absoulte number of gun deaths as staying virtually the same? Assuming Britain has positive population growth, that is something to be pointed out in favor of the ban. Also, we don't know, because the article was terrible, how many, if any, random type school shootings like the one in 1996 have there been since the ban?

I think many would agree strict gun control could decrease random shootings carried out by crazy people who buy guns legally. Of course, that doesn't mean that overall gun deaths would decrease, as that article may have pointed out. Man, that article really was terrible.

Tim April 27, 2007 at 9:20 am

The Australian experience shows that the imposition of tight gun laws had zero impact on the murder rate (see here.

Despite this, the Australian federal government and Australian pro-gun control groups, claim "victory" as the firearm related homicide rate has declined (…even though that was a trend firmly established prior to new national gun laws being introduced).

The self congratulatory chorus by these groups has been a parade rained on by academic and empirical research.

In their British Journal of Criminology" paper "Gun Laws & Sudden Death: Did the Australian Firearms Legislation of 1996 Make Any Difference?", UK criminologists Jeanine Baker and Samara McPhedran found:

"Mass murders in Dunblane, United Kingdom, and Port Arthur, Australia, provoked rapid
responses from the governments of both countries. Major changes to Australian laws resulted in a controversial buy-back of longarms and tighter legislation. The Australian situation enables evaluation
of the effect of a national buy-back, accompanied by tightened legislation in a country with relatively secure borders…. (NFA). When compared with observed values, firearm suicide was the only parameter the NFA may have influenced, although societal factors could also have influenced
observed changes…"

Their full paper can be found online here.

As Australia has both a federal constitution and a frontier history, and has a population heavily based on recent immigrants, it is a more relevant cross cultural model for the US than is the UK. In some ways perhaps more relevant than even Canada, as Australia, like the US, is an overwhelmingly anglophone society.

On the "difference" side of the equation, Australia however differs from the US in that it is a 'smaller' society. It is also in a sense more culturally homogeneous as it lacks any long established cultural split similar in scale to the US's white/black split that has deep historical roots in America. (There are similar social splits, for example, the white / aboriginal split, but the relative size is much smaller). Australia, thanks to the long distance it's main population centres are from other nations, also has some of the best policed borders on the planet. This compares to the US with it's long poorly policed border with Mexico. And Australia's political cultural history lacks anything equivalent to the America's war of independence with it's dependence on armed revolt and citizen militias.

All these factors would seem to indicate that Australian gun controls should have better chance of success than gun controls in the US. Still the Australian result is a null result. The logical conclusion would be that any attempt to impose similar legislation in the US would be even less successful. It may even be negative.

True_Liberal April 27, 2007 at 9:53 am

If one wants to examine the futility of gun laws, look no further than:

Tim April 27, 2007 at 10:37 am

Of course you don't have to have firearms to have a school massacre. Historically the worst school massacre in the US was the Bath Michigan massacre of (~) 1927. In that incident about 45 people, almost all of them children, were killed by explosives planted around the school by an elected member of the school board. (See wikipedia entry here).

Paulus October 2, 2008 at 4:56 am

UK gun control

The reasons why there are tough anti-gun laws in the UK are as follows:
The UK gun lobby's lack of zeal to engage the antigun lobby. Unlike their American counterparts, the British people are living in a democratic tyranny, and their authorities have engrained into them over the years “that one must not upset the authorities, for we do know what is best”. Thereby this popular type of thinking has resulted in making the British people very meek and thereby very fainthearted in challenging their establishment. In addition, the British are timid when it comes to the needed skills of dirty hatchet fighting skills, tactics, and anything goes while taking of no prisoners thus when engaging the antigun forces. However, the popular appeasement type of thinking is, “that this is not the done thing old boy”.

According to the local police. I was solely responsible through my hatchet fighting for shooting down the proposed New Zealand’s Police “let’s us get rich gun registration and confiscation scheme”.

But for greater the odds, greater the glory

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