Did British gun control work?

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An experiment in folly

by Iain Murray
June 21, 2001

WASHINGTON — When we read about children carrying weapons, of course we worry. Their inexperience and naiveté can lead them to do stupid things with tragic consequences. Therefore, it is only natural that one response should be to push for more restrictions, to make it more difficult for children to get access to weapons. If it works for children, why shouldn’t it work for adults?

If we want to stop criminals carrying guns, for instance, wouldn’t the best way be to restrict everyone’s access to them? One of the best ways of checking hypotheses like these is to look at actual tests of the theories.

The test lab in this case is Britain, which enacted strict gun control laws five years ago [in 1996] following an especially tragic school shooting. But the results so far are not good.

Americans were shocked when the Josephson Institute of Ethics revealed data in April that showed that 14 percent of all high school students and 21 percent of all boys had carried a weapon to school at least once in the past year.

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Addressing these findings, a representative for Handgun Control told Time.com, “The least we can do is keep guns out of kids’ hands.” That’s exactly what Britain’s strict gun laws aim to do.

But according to a survey for the British government’s Youth Justice Board released last week, fully 26 percent of high school-age students there have carried a weapon for aggressive or defensive purposes in the last year.

Unfortunately, neither survey broke down the results by weapon type (although 17 percent of the British children admitted carrying a knife). But worryingly, among British “excluded” students (those who had been suspended or expelled from school), a staggering 23 percent claimed to have had access to a gun in the last year.

This is in a country where it is virtually impossible to get access to a gun legally. Some commentators have suggested that part of the reason that the current outbreak of foot and mouth disease spread so rapidly there was because veterinarians could not shoot infected animals on the spot because they are forbidden to carry pistols.

Yet we have evidence that almost one-fourth of the children who need the most help in avoiding taking the wrong path have access to firearms. Strict gun laws don’t seem to be helping them much.

Nor are they helping hold down crime in general. The recent International Crime Victimization Survey, which provides a good indication of overall crime levels around the world, shows that, while crime fell dramatically during the 1990s in the United States and most of the rest of the world, it has remained steady in Britain and Australia (which also enacted a gun ban during the late 1990s).

Meanwhile, gun crimes in Britain are increasing. According to London’s authoritative Sunday Times, the number of firearm offenses in Britain increased almost 40 percent from 4,903 in 1997 to 6,843 in 2000. These are still small figures in comparison to the United States, but the trend is the opposite of what might be expected.

It does not seem that Britain can be said to be a safer place as a result of the gun ban. The police there have traditionally gone unarmed, but the number of incidents in which police officers have had guns issued to them in recognition of potential danger increased from about 6,000 in 1994-95 to over 12,000 in 1997-8.

With such incidents come the inevitable mistakes: British police recently shot dead a drug dealer in his own bedroom. He was both unarmed and naked at the time.

Nor has strict control had much effect on the number of guns available to criminals. British police estimate that there are nearly 300,000 illegal guns in circulation there — one for every 200 people.

To put that figure in perspective, the leading U.S. authority on gun numbers, Gary Kleck of Florida State University, estimates that only 180,000 guns are used in crimes in the United States each year. So despite the strict gun control laws, there are more than enough illegally held guns in Britain to allow gun crime there to reach U.S. proportions.

These figures speak for themselves. Britain enacted strict gun control laws and has achieved a rise in gun crime, a decline in safety and a position where access to firearms among delinquent children seems commonplace.

These are valuable lessons in this experience for other countries, including the United States.

If the United States enacts strict gun laws nationwide, the American people cannot expect to see a swift drop in crime or to see our police able to do their jobs with less risk. Most of all, they cannot expect such laws to free delinquent children from the seduction of the gun.


Iain Murray, a British citizen, specializes in criminal justice issues at STATS B, the Statistical Assessment Service, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit, nonpartisan public policy organization. He is also the author of the Encyclopaedia Britannica’s article on gun control statistics.

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