Anti-gun advocates like Gun Control Network Chair Gillian Marshall-Andrews tout the United Kingdom’s longstanding firearms restrictions, which include a near total ban on handguns, as the “gold standard” of gun control. In recent years, UK officials have continued to implement new policies that further burden law abiding gun owners. These include surprise inspections of gun owners’ firearm storage arrangements, the use of centralized firearm owner licensing data to target “terrorists,” and intrusive medical monitoring of firearm certificate holders.
However, the UK’s criminals appear indifferent.
According to the Office for National Statistics’ (ONS) statistical bulletin “Crime in England and Wales,” firearm crimes in England and Wales were up 27-percent for the year ending in June 2017. The bulletin noted, “The latest rise continues an upward trend seen in firearms offences in the last few years.”
In an attempt to resolve some of the increase, ONS explained that part of the growth could be due to improvements in the crime reporting. It should also be noted that the UK’s definition of “firearm,” as used for statistical purposes, includes some imitation guns and other non-firearm items, like pepper spray and stun guns. However, ONS also made clear that “Evidence of some genuine increase in offences involving firearms can be seen in admissions data for NHS hospitals in England, which showed increases in all three categories of assault by firearm discharge.”
An in-depth August 2017 ONS report on firearm crime statistics in England and Wales prepared for the House of Commons painted a similar picture. Using data through March 31, 2017, ONS found that non-air firearms offences had increased 23-percent over the previous year. The document showed that the 2016/17 total number of non-air firearms offences was 31-percent higher than the total in 2013/14. The 2016/17 figure for non-air firearm offenses was the highest recorded since 2010/11. The report also noted that there was a 19-percent increase in what ONS categorizes as “violence against the person” crimes involving a firearm from the period 2014/15 to 2015/16.
In 1997 the UK enacted a total ban on handguns in England and Wales. Despite this restriction, for the year ending in March 2017, handguns were the most common type of non-air firearm used in criminal offenses. Moreover, the statistical bulletin pointed out that there was a 25-percent increase in offenses involving handguns for the year ending in June 2017. As in the United States, the use of rifles in crime is rare, accounting for about 1-percent of non-air firearm offenses each year.
This increase in the criminal misuse of firearms is being cited as justification for a two week national gun surrender period from November 13 through 26. The effort is being spearheaded by the National Ballistics Intelligence Service, which has enlisted the Metropolitan Police and other local law enforcement in the effort. Under the program, those in illegal possession of a firearm can turn it in to specially designated police stations, no questions asked. During a similar effort in 2014 about 6,000 guns were surrendered.
The Met and local police stations have come up with various campaigns to promote the surrender. The Met’s promotional materials urge London’s youth to #GiveUpYourGun and include a YouTube video explaining the potential consequences of illegally carrying a firearm. A video from the Derbyshire Constabulary challenges viewers to tell the difference between a real and imitation handgun, and implores the audience to turn either type of object over to the police.
Despite this messaging, more practical public officials don’t seem to be holding out much hope that the UK’s criminals will comply. Much of NABIS’s press release on the surrender targeted the otherwise law-abiding.
Explaining the types of guns they were targeting, NABIS Head, Detective Chief Superintendent Jo Chilton, noted, “Perhaps you have a gun that has been handed down through the family or you have found a firearm in your loft or shed which has been gathering dust and you had forgotten about.” In a video for the BBC, NABIS Head of Operational Support Clive Robinson pointed to a table full of early 20th century firearms and said, “These are the sorts of weapons families are finding from loved ones that have passed. They’re finding in garages, etc. But when they see them they’re not sure what to do with it. If you bring it into your local police station we will safely dispose of it for you.” Assistant Chief Constable from Northumbria shared a similar sentiment, telling the BBC, “We are realistic enough to realize that we’re not going to get hardened gang members who are in possession of weapons they intend to use.”
Gun rights supporters and most gun control advocates agree that turn-ins, usually in the form of so-called “buybacks” in the U.S., are ineffective public policy. Since 1998, the U.S. Department of Justice has recognized that turn-in programs do not work. A more recent DOJ survey into research concerning Australia’s 1996 nationwide amnesty (confiscation) program noted that there is little evidence that it led to a reduction in crime and that turn-ins are generally ineffective because “The guns turned in are at low risk of ever being used in a crime.”
It is encouraging that some UK officials have at least a remote understanding that gun turn-ins do not work as intended. The recent increase in firearm crime should prompt public officials to reflect on some of the UK’s other gun control measures with a similar skepticism. However, employing reason isn’t their strong suit. Despite the data showing that rifles are used in less than 1 percent of firearms offenses, in October the Home Office announced plans to ban “.50 calibre and certain rapid firing rifles.”