Editor Note: This article was originally written in June 2016. It has been updated with more recent statistics.
British gun laws today – will America follow their example?
Composed of England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales, the citizens of the United Kingdom live under extremely restrictive gun laws – and they have a low rate of violent homicide. This is often used as an argument for tighter gun control laws in the United States. However, despite tight gun laws (or arguably because of), the British experience a high rate of crime including robbery and assault. It’s a balance that the British are willing to accept and in fact, are quite pleased with.
British gun laws include strict licensing requirements (i.e. “certificates”), strict gun registration requirements, strict gun storage laws, and bans on most firearms. Most Americans believe restrictions such as these would never be accepted in the United States – statistics show that most Americans (as of 2016) do not want overly restrictive gun laws. However, small incremental changes in gun laws can gradually weaken our rights without us even recognizing our rights are being taken away.
British restrictions on firearms did not happen overnight. Their restrictive gun controls were implemented over the course of several decades and for various reasons. Even odder, almost unanimously, the right to own firearms was freely relinquished by the British citizens with very little resistance.
Differences in British and American cultures – why Brits showed little concern when their guns were taken away
The British have little interest in guns
The primary reason the British so freely relinquished their gun rights was because they had little interest in guns. The UK is very urbanized with a strong performing arts culture and athletic interests focused in older, more “civilized” sports such as soccer, golf, and tennis. Shooting in the UK was only popular in “shooting clubs” that operated under rigid rules and within an established tradition. In part, the Brits gave up their gun rights simply because they did not care about owning guns.
For example, when British citizens were required to turn in larger-caliber pistols in 1997, it was found that only 1 in 1,000 Brits owned a handgun. That is a much, much lower level of gun ownership than the United States. In addition, they not only handed over their handguns as required by law, they freely turned in many other, legal guns too – tens of thousands of them.
Cultural differences played a part too
America may seem in many ways to be like the UK, but in many ways we are vastly different too. Like the United States, the UK has a strong democracy with ample freedom to speak and act as they wish, but their culture also instills the belief that their government will always uphold the best interests of the citizens and will always protect them. Americans tend to believe more power should belong in the hands of the people, that citizens have the right, at any point in time, to challenge their government. As such, they are unwilling to relinquish too much power to their government – even if surrendering those rights improves their safety. As such, the *right* to own guns is much more valued to Americans than the British. You’ve heard of this often as “the cost of freedom” and it truly is often measured in human lives.
Do British gun laws make sense?
Before discussing how the British came to lose their guns, we need to delve briefly into the statistics surrounding the effectiveness of gun control laws. The point isn’t necessarily to argue whether restrictions on gun ownership make a person safer or reduce crime but to look at commonly accepted claims and attempt to understand the differences presented in statistical analysis of gun laws and violent crime – and how those statistics can be manipulated by either side of the debate.
There indeed is a low homicide rate in the UK
Firstly, it is indeed true that the homicide rate in the UK is very low. Likewise, it’s true that the United States finds itself with higher levels of violent homicides than other European countries. Still, the difference between the two countries is much smaller than people think and not nearly as high as the level of violent deaths seen in non-European countries (see this article for how income inequality drives up violent crimes in those countries). Regardless, we can accurately claim that “the rate of violent deaths is higher in the United States than in the United Kingdom” even though the difference between the two countries is minuscule.
But there’s a high rate of non-violent crime
Although the violent homicide rate in the UK is very low, their non-violent crime rate is very high. According to CIA and Wordbook statistics, Scotland and Northern Ireland lead the planet in assaults. Data from 2002 shows they had the 2nd highest rate of assaults on the planet (the United States ranked 9th). Similarly, they find themselves in the 3rd position in robbery rates (the United States ranks 16th on the planet). Altogether, the top three countries with the highest rates of total crime are Australia (who also has extremely tight gun control laws), New Zealand, and the United Kingdom. The US rates #15.
Gun rights proponents will argue that this is to be expected. After all, they do not have guns to protect themselves or their property and criminals of course, will use that to their advantage.
Do statistics really matter?
For every statistic quoted above, we can provide a different statistic to prove something else. Data can differ widely and statistics can be presented, or more importantly, data can be connected to other data points in a variety of ways. For instance, the numbers above show that the UK has higher relative crime rates than the US. But is this because they own fewer guns with which to protect themselves? Or because their police force, per capita, is smaller? Or because they have more pubs per square mile? (statistics show rates of alcohol consumption mimic increased levels of violence in European countries.)
Similarly, statistics show that British have a much lower homicide rate than the US. But did you know that the UK measures homicides differently than in the US? In the UK, a crime is only considered a “homicide” if a person is convicted. In the US, a “homicide” is considered any loss of human life that was caused by another person.
In the end, it’s difficult to quantify and rank crime statistics in a meaningful manner because (1) countries do not record data in the same manner, (2) countries do not always readily share that data, and (3) there’s an inherent bias in the numbers provided by each nation (some seek international help by presenting harsher numbers while some soften the statistics to prove their system works).
It’s even more difficult to relate those statistics to outside influences such as levels of gun ownership, gun laws, size of a country’s police force, or the impact of a poorly-functioning mental health system. The reason is simple: societies are complex social structures and multiple relationships exist between various cause and effect scenarios.
Similarly, it’s nearly impossible to measure and contrast homicide rates to subjective values such as the right that America values the most – Freedom.
Ultimately, the UK and the US have different cultures and those differences impact each nation’s gun laws. The systems are difficult to compare to each other because, well, they’re different.
Can we measure the right America values most – Freedom?
The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OCED) produces various economic rankings for countries throughout the world. According to OCED rankings, with regards to “safety”, a measurement in this case that includes crime rates as well as a person’s belief that they are safe, the US ranks slightly lower than the UK. However, the same organization shows that “life satisfaction” in the United States is higher than in the UK. In other words, Americans are more satisfied with their society than the Brits.
Maybe freedom can be measured after all.
How the British lost their guns
It’s imperative that we recognize that British restrictions on firearms did not happen overnight. The gradual loss of gun ownership rights took place over several decades and for various reasons. Unimaginable by most Americans, almost unanimously, the rights were freely relinquished by the people. Here’s how it happened.
British fear of communism – Firearms Act of 1920
The initial restriction on British firearms was pitched as a means to control crime – and it played on citizens fears. In reality, its purpose was a means for the government to control the people. This began a trend that continued for thirty years as the government continued to tighten gun laws and eventually, restrict all offensive weapons, including non-firearm type weapons.
Around 1920, after World War I, the British government feared armed labor unions could steer the country towards communism. There was much working class unrest during this period and communism was spreading throughout the hemisphere. However, the threat of a Bolshevik revolution in the UK proved unfounded as history shows the Soviet Union found it necessary to spend all its energy gaining full control of its own people rather than exporting revolution. Regardless, as a result of Parliament’s fears, they introduced the Firearms Act of 1920 as a means to control potentially unruly citizens.
Under the guise of crime control, the act required the registration of all handguns and rifles (a seemingly innocuous cataloging of gun owners but a system that can easily be used to track and confiscate all citizen firearms). The Act also limited the amount of ammunition a holder could buy or possess and required that the buyer provide a valid reason for purchasing a gun.
The changes to firearm laws were not minor tweaks to existing law. Brits had long held the right to own guns. Their 1689 Bill of Rights guaranteed “the right of individuals to bear arms”, but with an added condition – “as allowed by the law”. As a result, the 1920 Act made the constitutional right to own firearms conditional upon the judgment of government officials. In effect, the Brits lost their right to own firearms with the single stroke of a pen.
Americans introduce firearm restrictions – the British follow suit
America’s 1934 Gun Control Act outlawed fully-automatic weapons and short-barreled shotguns and influenced the Brits who implemented similar changes to their law. American law was based on the explosion of organized crime that accompanied prohibition. Britain however, had no prohibition in place. Once again, unfounded fears prompted changes in Britain’s gun laws.
The 1937 Firearms Act modified the 1920 Act to include some common sense requirements. For instance, the minimum age to buy firearms was raised from 14 to 17. But it also implemented further restrictions on a citizen’s right to bear arms.
In addition to extending controls on short-barreled shotguns and outlawing fully automatic weapons (British politicians called them “gangster guns”), self-defense was no longer an acceptable reason for applying for a firearm certificate. For those who owned machine guns or World War I trophy guns, if they followed the law and legally registered their firearms, they were required to turn in their guns to the government.
British gun control laws are further tightened – 1953 Prevention of Crime Act
With already-tight firearms restrictions in place, the 1953 Prevention of Crime Act made it illegal to carry any sort of “offensive weapon”. This included not only knives, clubs, tear gas, etc. but any pointed object that could be used as a weapon.
By 1953, offensive weapons of any kind were illegal in the UK. The remaining changes to gun control law would be motivated solely by fear.
The death of three policemen –Firearms Act 1968
Despite extremely tight gun laws, three police officers were killed with unregistered (i.e. illegal) handguns. That same year, Scotland Yard stated:
“The objectives of eliminating the improper and careless custody and use of firearms … and making it difficult for criminals to obtain them … are effectively achieved.”
Regardless, the public cried out for capital punishment (which had already been abolished in Britain), insisting the murderers of the policemen pay. The government responded to their cries with the introduction of the 1968 Firearms Act. The newest controls required owners now register their sporting shotguns, a curious requirement given the three policemen were killed with handguns. For the first time, controls had been introduced for long-barreled shotguns (in the form of a Shotgun Certificate).
The 1968 Firearms Act also handed police the power to refuse registration of a firearm if they felt the person could “endanger public safety”. The act required firearms be locked up with ammunition locked and stored in a different cabinet. A period of amnesty was provided during which time anyone could turn in their guns to the government without fear of reprisal. British citizens complied and relinquished thousands of their firearms to the government.
The Hungerford Massacre – Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988
In 1987, while living under some of the most restrictive gun laws on the planet, sixteen people were shot down and fifteen people injured in Hungerford, England by Michael Ryan. The shootings occurred at several locations, including a school. Ryan used a semiautomatic Beretta pistol, an AK-47 type rifle, and a M1 carbine. His motives were unclear (he committed suicide afterward) but doctors believed mental illness was key – Ryan was schizophrenic and psychotic.
Driven by fear, the media whipped the public into a frenzy citing the “dangerous weapons” used in the attack. Curiously, the media neglected to report that the telephone exchange could not handle the number of 999 calls made by witnesses as Ryan travelled about the countryside killing people, nor that the police firearms squad (remember, only special forces in the UK’s police squad carry firearms) was training forty miles away, nor that the police helicopter was in for repair, nor that only two phone lines were operational at the police station because it was undergoing renovation.
At the time of the shooting, only a small percentage of the public had firearm permits and an even smaller percentage owned semiautomatic weapons. Driven by fear, angered at the shooter, and with little interest in firearms, the public was eager to support any added restrictions on firearms.
The Firearms (Amendment) Act of 1988 banned all semi-automatic rifles and pump action shotguns. Shotguns with magazines were outlawed and a clause included that prohibited shotguns from holding more than two shells.
One year later, British Home Secretary Douglas Hurd revealed that the provisions in the act had been drawn up long before the Hungerford Massacre. They were simply waiting for the right time to push it through Parliament.
The Dunblane Scotland School Massacre – Firearms (Amendment) Act of 1997
By 1996, the UK was a near-gunless society. Regardless, another massacre occurred in the UK setting up the opportunity to introduce more restrictive gun laws. Sixteen children and their teacher were massacred in Dunblane School by Thomas Hamilton. He used four handguns and hundreds of rounds of ammunition. He had been accused of molesting several young boys at the school.
As with the Hungerford Massacre, Hamilton had notable mental health issues. Many had warned the police that he was unstable but the police failed to act. Oddly, following the shooting, the official investigative report was “sealed for 100 years”. The official reason was “to protect the children” but even redacted versions of the report were not provided to the public.
With limited information in hand, the public reacted with petitions calling for a ban on ownership of pistols and the government happily complied. The Firearms (Amendment) Act of 1997 banned all handguns over .22 caliber and required that larger caliber guns be surrendered to the government. As a result, 162,000 pistols were turned in. However, this represented only a very small percentage of the population – only about .1%.
Even odder, many citizens turned in their smaller caliber firearms too. Saying they anticipated further legislation on down the road, they went ahead and voluntarily turned in all of their weapons.
British gun laws today
“As of today British citizens are allowed to own only antique muzzle-loading firearms, shotguns capable of holding no more than two shells, and some rifles. Most are required to store their firearms in secure cabinets separate from the ammunition. The instructions provided by the government concerning what constitutes “safe storage” covers 15 pages. Firearms must be stored in a secure locker that is tamper proof and physically attached to the building.”
Surprising to many Americans, the UK’s firearm restrictions violate several of our constitutional rights.
“Ammunition must be stored separately in another secured safe. No one but the licensed firearms owner is allowed to have access to his firearms. (A retired lawyer lost his shotgun license because he told his mother where the key to the gun safe was stored). The police must be provided with a map of the premises, and must be allowed to inspect the premises without advanced notice to ensure compliance. If the registrant refuses, his license is taken and he must give up his registered guns.”
Rarely talked about – Gun ownership and how the Brits almost lost their country
Oddly, and rarely talked about, British losing their guns did not come without consequences. After the fall of France in 1940, Britain’s laissez faire attitude towards firearms routed them into a dire predicament. They found themselves with no firearms with which to protect themselves. Embarrassingly, soldiers unfamiliar with real firearms were required to drill with umbrellas, canes, and sticks. Americans, with a strong gun culture in place, stepped in to assist. In November 1940, the American Committee for the Defense of British Homes placed advertisements in United States newspapers and in magazines such as American Rifleman asking readers to
“Send A Gun to Defend a British Home–British civilians, faced with threat of invasion, desperately need arms for the defense of their homes.”
As a result of these ads, pro-Allied organizations in the United States collected weapons, with assistance from the National Rifle Association, and shipped 7,000 guns to Britain. Winston Churchill wrote in Their Finest Hour:
“When the ships from America approached our shores with their priceless arms, special trains were waiting in all the ports to receive their cargoes. The Home Guard in every county, in every town, in every village, sat up all through the night to receive them …. By the end of July we were an armed nation … a lot of our men and some women now had weapons in their hands.”
How should American proceed?
Firstly, understand that statistics presented by politicians, media, and opponents on either side of the gun control argument, are in a word, twisted. America does indeed have higher rates of gun ownership than the rest of the world. America does experience higher numbers of violent deaths than most other developed (i.e. “First World”) countries. However, the numbers are often skewed or stated in a manner to support the gun control argument.
I found the charts below to be most informative. They are simple, clear, and based on widely accepted OCED data (and supported by a 2013 United Nations study). One chart illustrates overall homicides while the other illustrates homicides by firearms. Both charts show that America has higher rates of homicide as evidenced by how high (vertically) we fall on the chart. Both charts show America owns far more firearms (per 100 people) than anyone on the planet (noted by how far to the right (horizontally) we fall on the chart). However, note the relationship between the two measurements. America’s horizontal position on the charts is far to the right, indicating America owns many, many more firearms than any other country. If violent homicide directly relates to firearms we would expect to see the same distance vertically – America should be far higher, around the area of El Salvador or Jamaica. But we’re not. We do have higher rates of homicide but the higher rate is relatively small, a small deviation that we accept as “the cost of freedom”.
Second, understand British history and how they came to lose their gun rights (and how they were impacted in 1940 when they found themselves without guns and unable to defend against an advancing army). It’s not an unusual scenario – it’s played out in other countries too (e.g. Australia). In fact, the same scenario has taken place in individual states within the US. In the UK’s instance, the gradual loss of gun rights began with misdirection and accelerated after shooting incidents instilled fear within the public realm. The laws changed gradually, in small increments, and the public willingly accepted them.
Finally, recognize that there is a cost to freedom. Our forefathers most certainly experienced fear but still fought and died for our constitutional rights. Most Americans will agree that we should not so easily disregard a constitution that allowed our country to grow richer and stronger than any other country in history. Instead, we must put aside our fear, act as our forefathers would have acted, and remember that there is a cost of freedom.
A special message to the British
I don’t want any Brits thinking I’m being judgmental or criticizing the great people of the United Kingdom. I think most British people are aware that Americans adore them. It’s a special kind of friendship – and love. Americans have a tremendous amount of respect for Brits (and yeah, we’re terribly embarrassed about dragging you guys into the the whole “weapons of mass destruction” thing).
However, I think some freedoms in your country are being abused. For instance, I’ve had one article and one article only that has been “removed” from the Google Search engine. It’s an article that criticizes Interpol’s methods. It was removed from UK search engines as a result of an “anonymous” request. To this day the article is blocked in the UK.