The national outcry after the Dunblane shooting in 1996, however, sparked a far more sweeping ban. In the 1997 Firearms Act, private citizens were virtually barred from owning most types of handguns. At the same time, it became harder to own legal weapons such as sporting rifles. Police officers in England and Wales, for instance, now routinely contact the physicians of new applicants to inquire whether they are being treated for mental illnesses including depression.
“The assault weapons ban didn’t go far enough; it was still too easy to get guns,” said Charles Clydesdale, 57, whose 5-year-old daughter, Victoria, died in the Dunblane shooting. “But the handgun ban made a difference. Losing my girl shattered my life; every day I think of her. But I know what happened after we lost her, the gun ban, did make a difference.”
Britain’s experience suggests that legislative bans indeed make guns far harder to get. However, the bans alone may not produce immediate effects on broader gun crime and require forceful backup by law enforcement to turn the tide of firearm violence.
After Britain’s sweeping handgun ban was imposed in 1997, for instance, tens of thousands of weapons were collected from legal owners in exchange for fair market value, cutting off supplies of stolen handguns that ended up in criminal hands and largely forbidding their sale by gun dealers in Britain. Nevertheless, statistics show that gun violence in Britain increased for the next several years.
But starting in 2005 — and following years of anti-gun sweeps by police forces in British cities that made illegal guns far less accessible — gun violence began to ebb. In 2011, England and Wales recorded 7,024 offenses involving firearms, down 37 percent from their peak in 2005. Given that British crime statistics also count fake guns as “firearms,” criminologists say the number of violent crimes involving real guns is likely significantly lower.
“One thing that is now certain is that it’s much more difficult to get a gun in this country,” said Jack Straw, Britain’s former cabinet minister in charge of home affairs and one of the chief architects of the 1997 Firearms Act.
British, U.S. gun cultures
Nevertheless, vast differences remain between the United States and Britain, a country where the right to bear arms is not enshrined by law and where the gun culture of hunting and target shooting is largely confined to a group of roughly 600,000 practicing shooters. Straw, for instance, conceded that “America is different. If I were living in Texas, on a ranch miles from anywhere else, I’d want to own a gun, too.”
Gun rights advocates here also say the British bans have gone too far, resulting in the public stigmatization of legal gun owners and police harassment of firearm-owning farmers and sportsmen. They note that Britain has a rich historical tradition of game hunting, an old sport of kings that still thrives in the countryside where bird shooting and deer stalking in particular remain a genteel pastime on rural estates.
“You have an absolute right to guns in the United States, and thank God for it,” said Mike Eveleigh, senior firearms officer for the British Association for Shooting and Conservation. “There has been such a backlash in Britain against the possession of guns to defend yourself with that, sadly, you can only own one now for sports or work.”
Eliza Mackintosh contributed to this report.