Wednesday, 25 July 2012

A British perspective on gun control in the US

Upon hearing about the latest mass-shooting in the US, I decided to browse the internet to read about the terrible event and the reaction to it. I was not surprised to see many Americans again failing to understand and accept the association between events such as these and the ease with which it is possible to obtain firearms in their country. As this blog seems to attract a fair few views from the US, I thought I’d offer a British perspective on the issue of gun control.

For anyone reading this from the UK (or a country with similarly strict gun control) this probably won’t be that interesting. Gun control is simply not an issue here. Our gun control laws are amongst the strictest in the world, and that is just the way people here seem to like it.  In fact, there is some evidence that we’d actually prefer the controls to be stricter. Consider a YouGov survey conducted in 2010 which reported that 31% of respondents would like an outright ban on civilian gun ownership, 38% would like stricter restrictions, 23% thought that current restrictions were about right, and just 4% thought that the restrictions should be relaxed.

None of the main political parties propose to relax gun control and I can not even think of a fringe party who make this a serious policy of theirs.  The only example that springs to mind is the British National Party (BNP), a far-right nationalist party, who in 2005 proposed that adults who’ve completed military service should be required to keep an assault rifle and ammunition in a safe locker in their homes. But not only is the BNP electorally irrelevant, this policy was buried somewhere in a very long manifesto and was probably just a cynical attempt to prove their democratic (and thus non-authoritarian) credentials. Those who read about this policy would at best have thought the BNP were misguided, but if they’d proposed that people should just be allowed to wander into a store and buy a gun and ammunition with nothing more than a background check we’d definitely think they were insane. But that seems to be the state of affairs in most US states!

In my 28 years of life in the UK, most of which has been spent in London (a busy city with millions of citizens and many visitors) I’ve never seen a gun outside of the hands of specially trained armed police officers or military personnel. Having never seen a gun in the hands of a civilian, I’ve obviously never been the victim of gun crime. Nor, to the best of my knowledge, has anyone I know. Guns are things that I see in television shows and films, not in the real world. This description of life in the UK is probably one that the vast majority of people born here would agree with. It is on this basis that there is just no appreciable appetite for gun ownership. The desire to own a piece of equipment specifically designed to kill and maim is not one that the vast majority of people here have.

Of course, there is still some gun crime in the UK. In the year 2010/11, statistics for England and Wales show that there were 58 firearms offences resulting in fatal injury and a total of 11,227 firearms offences (almost 80% of which did not result in injury) in a population of over 55 million. By contrast, in Texas (which has a population less than half that of England and Wales) in 2010 there were 805 murders by firearm. The rate of murder  by firearm in the UK for 2010/11 is approximately 0.1 per 100,000 while the rate for the US as a whole was 2.84 per 100,000 in 2010. There have also been incidents of mass shootings in the UK, such as the Hungerford and Dunblane massacres in 1987 and 1996, respectively. More recently, in 2010, Derek Bird went on a killing spree with a shotgun and rifle, which he owned legally. However, since 1987 there have been many more mass shootings in the US. In 2012 alone, thus far there have been shootings at Oikos University in California (7 dead, 3 injured), a cinema in Aurora (12 dead, 59 injured), and a cafĂ© in Seattle (5 dead, 1 injured). In 2011, there was an attack near Tuscon killing 6 and injuring 14, an attack in Seal Beach, California, killing 8 and injuring 1, and a number of other attacks.

When confronted with the regularity of these attacks and statistics on murder by firearm, many Americans seem to react in entirely the opposite way to what I’d consider a sensible response. Instead of calling into question the ease with which people can legally acquire firearms and calling for greater restrictions, they often simply dismiss the problem with inane quips like “guns don’t kill people; people kill people”. While technically true, it would also be true that “bombs don’t kill people; people kill people”, but no one (I hope) would want bombs to be available for general purchase when it’d be inevitable that some people would use them to blow up their fellow citizens. Allowing guns to find their way easily and readily into the hands of millions of people is asking for trouble – the purpose of guns is to kill and maim and it is inevitable that some people will use them for their intended purpose.

Others like to argue that, if they could not obtain weapons legally, would-be perpetrators of mass shootings would find weapons on the ‘black market’ with which to commit their crime. While there is perhaps an element of truth to this, I seriously doubt that Holmes could have acquired the small arsenal he used for his attack had he lived in the UK. By all accounts he seemed to be an introverted and socially-inept nerd who would almost certainly lack the social nous or wherewithal to be going to the criminal underworld to buy weapons. It is also probable that he’d be detected if he was in the process of stockpiling multiple weapons and thousands of rounds of ammunition. His attack in Aurora would be branded an act of terrorism had he been Muslim, and the security services in the UK don’t sit idly by while people accumulate arsenals of weapons that could be used to, for example, mimic the Mumbai attacks of 2008.  Importantly, since guns are restrictively controlled here, efforts to obtain them in numbers would certainly be something that would arouse suspicion if detected, but in the US gun control is so relaxed that buying guns isn’t itself suspicious at all. I suspect that if Holmes lived in the UK, he’d not have been able to obtain the number of weapons and amount of ammunition that he did or that he’d have deemed it too difficult and tried to lash out at society in some other way. This is speculation of course, but it should also be pointed out that the UK doesn't have the kind of 'black market' gun problem that some Americans imagine to be a consequence of strict gun control. 

Others argue that, despite incidents such as these, to control gun ownership would be “unconstitutional” and therefore something that should not be done. I find this mentality somewhat difficult to understand. On what basis is it sensible to hold as a matter of necessity to something that was written in the 1780s/1790s? This doesn’t seem too different to certain Muslims who want society to be ruled in accordance with texts written 1,000 years ago. If the US still exists in 2790, would it be odd for people to hold necessarily to the Constitution regardless of other developments? I think so. So why is it sensible now? Things change… what was once a good idea might not always be a good idea. Having the flexibility to recognise and respond to this is how progress is made. On a more fundamental philosophical note, the way things are at present is just one of many, many ways that things might have been (assuming free will is true, of course). It just doesn’t make sense to hold as a matter of necessity to the way things are, especially when that way no longer works and things could be different. Unless something changes, the mass shootings in the US will continue to happen as will the many thousands of fatal shootings every year.

What I hope to have demonstrated in this brief post is not a watertight argument for strict gun control, but simply that there are examples of ways in which things can be different. The UK is one such example. Gun ownership is restrictively controlled here and we have a low rate of murder by firearm and just a few mass shootings in the last few decades and despite this strict control we’re not all barricaded into our homes living in fear of armed criminals or being ruthlessly exploited by a tyrannical government. 


  1. We do not fail to understand your connection between the "easy" availability of guns and shooting sprees, it's rather the case that the association is irrelevant.

    As difficult as it may be for you to conceive of it, there is a vibrant black market for guns here regardless of their legal availability. The UK doesn't border the Third World with a contiguous border nor does it have a criminal underclass that would be considered "hard core" here.

    In a grimly amusing way, gun control is not an issue here either. A faction of the elites wants it, but it is popularly rejected out of hand time and again.

    You obviously don't know your own history very well, but again you are only 28. Who "allowed" the IRA and all of its splinter groups to own both guns and "bomb making materials?" No one did. They ignored all of those pesky Irish and UK laws on gun control and explosives regulations and blew up many a Londoner and shot many British soldiers before your time. THAT is what is recognize here that you too readily dismiss--that a man with evil intent and the will to see things through will make mayhem somehow. The desire to be able to respond to such a threat one's self is almost entirely the distinction between a citizen and a subject. We don't expect the nanny state to save us from the bad guys when they unpredictably appear.

    We have a saying here: "You can't put the toothpaste back in the tube." Not only could no one successfully confiscate the some 300 million firearms estimated to exist in the US, a large plurality of people wouldn't bother to comply with even a draconian threat to compel their surrender. We're the descendants of a people "numerous and armed," remember?

  2. Eric,

    The IRA imported large quantities of weapons from abroad (including United States and Libya), into the Republic of Ireland, for their armed campaign in Northern Ireland. Their campaign in England involved bomb attacks. If you read the details of those bomb attacks, I'm sure you'll see that even if most English people owned guns the attacks would still have occurred.

    In July 2005, Islamic suicide bombers blew up underground trains and a bus in London. If everyone on those trains and that bus were carrying guns, I don't think it'd have made the slightest difference. After all, you can't just go shooting someone because they've got brown skin and they're wearing a back pack (there are thousands of people matching that description on the London transport system every day!).

    Just imagine what Islamic terrorists here (and the IRA if they were still active) could do if weaponry was much more easily accessible to them.

    Increasingly sophisticated intelligence and security services is the way to deal with terrorists, not allowing the proliferation of firearms (and whatever other weapons you'd like to see on sale) through British society.

    Perhaps you are right that the US gun problem is too far gone though. There's too many guns out there and too many people seemingly obsessed with retaining them.

  3. Mark--

    My commentary at no point was concerning whether armed citizens could have stopped either IRA or Islamist bombings. FWIW, they didn't stop Tim McVeigh here either.

    That said, occupied home break ins and "invasions" are rare here compared to the UK and many of the ones which do occur, upon closer inspection, involve criminals trying to rob dope dealers where they live.

    There is also next to zero stranger on stranger "knife crime" here either. Here, only corrections officer have to wear anti-stabbing rated vests. Of course, there isn't a constable working in America who isn't carrying a sidearm on the street.

    I'd take a moment to note they are all armed in Canada too, and not against gang bangers from Seattle, Detroit, and Buffalo.

    The commonality between Canada and the USA is not the relative gun cultures, which are somewhat, albeit not radically different, it's in that both are countries carved out of a frontier. For both better and worse, this dynamic created a very wide and very deep small "l" libertarian stream of thought, particularly in the western halves of both countries.

    I have been to England, and many of the "commonwealth" countries abroad, such as Australia, Singapore, India and others. The common strain between the widely disparate cultures is a strong deference to centralized authority that is simply absent in the United States.

    Were Americans populating the sceptered isle, I imagine it'd be like much like the dynamic in Illinois. Everyone else within the borders would despise London and its domineering politics, and would seek to undermine its influence at every turn, just like regular Illini rail and hem in corrupt Chicago any way that they can. In terms of gun politics alone, Chicago and the rest of the state are wildly divergent.

    It's just the way of the world here.

  4. I think knife crime in the UK tends to get exaggerated. In 2010/11, there were 211 fatal stabbings in England & Wales and just 6% of violent incidents involved a knife or sharp object. With regard to the fatal stabbings, many of these (particularly the highly publicised ones) are young black men stabbing other young black men. See this for an example:

    Here's a Parliamentary briefing paper on knife crime in the UK:

    I'd be interested in seeing the actual knife crime data for the US, but tracking down statistics seems to be difficult!

  5. Most of the gun homicides here involve minority group trigger men and victims. However, it is not politically correct to discuss this statistical truth.

    Per capita, whites and Asians unjustifiably shoot a lot fewer people in the US than do blacks and Hispanics.

  6. WRT your comment:

    On what basis is it sensible to hold as a matter of necessity to something that was written in the 1780s/1790s? This doesn’t seem too different to certain Muslims who want society to be ruled in accordance with texts written 1,000 years ago. If the US still exists in 2790, would it be odd for people to hold necessarily to the Constitution regardless of other developments? I think so. So why is it sensible now? Things change…

    When was the Magna Carta written? It was 1215. Makes 1789 (the date of the US Bill of Rights) seem like just the other day.

  7. You should learn about gun crime in your own country, which is on the rise and is one of the highest in the world, before commenting on other peoples’ countries.

    The UK illegal arms market is quite robust and “boasts” an entirely new innovation, the "rent-a-gun." The usual advice for anyone wishing to get a gun in the UK is to walk down to a corner of any of several districts and inquire of the first person who passes.

    The UK even recently shared the "honor" of being grouped with Australia as one of the two most violent of the 17 wealthiest nations in the world.

    But, why would you need much of an arms market when plans for a firearm such as Luty's can be acquired easily on the Internet, and a 9mm SMG — which are actually quite common on England's merry-old streets — can be built from normal hardware supplies.

    Listen, it's pretty clear from what you wrote, you lead a sheltered life, so I understand why you know so little about your own country.

    British gun law has never produced any positive change in the illegal use of firearms or led to any decrease whatsoever in the percentage of homicides in which guns are involved.

    On the other hand, British gun laws have directly correlated to dramatic increases in violent crime, sexual assault and home invasion, at such a rate that every criminologist who I have ever met feels much safer in a U.S. city than a British one. You are all about 10 years from it being Clockwork Orange over there, and we have no desire to join you in the descent into madness.

    The U.S. is a much larger and more complex country than your little island. We are only behind India for population, and have a land mass about the same as China's. We have greater cultural and racial diversity than all of Europe. Our socioeconomic map is completely unique in the world. We have states such as Vermont and New Hampshire with some of the loosest gun laws in the world, and a homicide rate lower than yours. We have cities such as D.C. and Chicago with gun laws like your own, where people are scared to be out at night, and where gun homicides as a percentage of all homicides have steadily risen each year anti-gun laws have been in effect.

    You have an absolutely juvenile understanding of firearms if you think that, against a group of unarmed people, the type of gun matters. A homemade gun along the lines of a Four Winds Shotgun, especially used the way they do in the Philippines where one simply pops the next shell in the end and flips the barrel to fire again, would be all that someone needs to commit mass-murder against unarmed victims. In Germany, a man killed school girls with a Medieval mace and a yard-sprayer he'd made into a flame thrower.

    But here's the thing, as you sit on your judgmental, ignorant platform of self-importance, informed by fear and sounding to anyone with an education like a young-earth creationist, in the U.S., for every homicide involving a gun, there are at least 18 incidents where a firearm is used to prevent a murder.

    Every year, thousands of incidents occur like the one recently where a young girl was stalked for a week by a known sex offender. Finally, one day, when she was home alone, the man came for her. She shot him. He survived, and she isn't buried in a shallow grave in the woods somewhere.

    It's difficult to say how many similar criminals would be stopped if Britain had the same sense the U.S. does, or how many little girls of the thousands who disappear off the streets of Britain each year might be at home, alive and happy, if criminals feared to enter your homes at all.

    But, given how much more frequently women are raped and old people are beaten and lit on fire in your weird, violent little country, while the U.S. may look at other countries for sensible examples of handling gun violence, I don't think we will look at the one that has not decreased the percentage of homicides by guns by even one percentage point in a hundred years while witnessing a horrific rise in criminal abuse of the innocent and defenseless.

  8. Also, tracking down any U.S. statistic is incredibly easy, especially because our police, if one man breaks into 15 houses, would record it as 15 burglaries, and not as one burglary, like some countries I won't name are known to do.

    Just Google "Wisqars" and you can calculate any statistic you like.

    Btw, if you include Scotland's 61 knife murders in that period (seems a bit funny how the Brits never want to own Scotland's statistics though you are governed by the same laws and don't have a secure border between you) and add that, you get 272 knife homicides.

    As to your "young black men" comment, and so? If you removed the city of Chicago from the state of Illinois, which still has several other reasonably-sized cities, Illinois would go from as many homicides a year as the UK to about 20 total homicides for a population half the size of Australia. That is to say, if you removed Chicago and left all the other cities in Illinois intact, the murder rate would be the equivalent of if the UK had 120 homicides a year total.

    Which is why cross comparisons don't work as well as internal comparisons. And, from an internal comparison view, at best the gun control in Britain has had no measurable effect; at worst, it's correlated to an ever more violent and unsafe society where guns are no less available to those wishing to use them to do harm than before.