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What the fatal attack on a British politician says about guns in the U.K.

Police stand guard outside the library in Birstall, England, where MP Jo Cox was killed Thursday. (Oli Scarff/Agence France-Presse)

Four days after the horrific mass shooting in Orlando sparked a fresh debate about gun control in the United States, a fatal attack on a politician in Britain is bringing attention to that country's gun control policies.

Jo Cox, a member of the British Parliament for the center-left Labour Party, was shot and stabbed while meeting with constituents near the northern city of Leeds on Thursday. According to police, the 41-year-old has died of her injuries.

Any physical attack on a British politician would be extremely unusual, but that the attack on Cox involved a firearm may be even more surprising within Britain. The United Kingdom has strict gun laws that make getting a firearm quite difficult. Gun crime is relatively low in the country.

British member of Parliament dies following shooting

"In terms of the types of gun that can be legally owned, background checks and the penalties for illegal possession and use, we are one of the strictest in Europe," Helen Poole, a researcher with the University of Coventry who recently studied firearms across the European Union, said in an e-mail.

The British government pursued legislative bans on assault rifles and handguns and dramatically tightened background checks for other types of firearms after a horrific mass shooting at a school that killed 15 children and their teacher in 1996. As The Washington Post reported in 2013 a total of 200,000 guns and 700 tons of ammunition were taken off British streets in the 17 years since the attack. Military-style weapons and most handguns were banned, including Olympics-style starting pistols.

According to the most recent statistics, there were 1,338,399 shotguns licensed in England and Wales last year, and more than 500,000 firearms of other types also licensed. There were about 582,494 licensed shotgun owners and 153,603 licensed for other firearms, almost all of whom lived in rural areas and who used their guns for sport or to protect their farmland.

That means that last year there were around 1,863,524 legally held guns in England and Wales, two nations which have a total population of over 58 million. To put it another way, this means that around 3,200 shotguns and other firearms for every 100,000 people in Britain. Meanwhile, some estimates suggest that there are believed to be about 357 million guns in the United States for 317 million people.

Legally owned guns are just one aspect of gun ownership, of course. France has strict gun laws that are comparable to Britain's, but authorities have estimated that there may be 30,000 illegally obtained in the country. Around 4,000 were thought to be "war weapons," including Uzis and the Kalashnikov AK-variant rifles. These are the sorts of weapons that were used in a series of terror attacks in Paris last year that killed scores of people.

Britain has not yet suffered a shooting attack on the similar scale to the one in France. Perhaps part of this may come down to geography, rather than policy. Because the island country is not part of the Europe's Schengen Area, which has no border control, importing a bulky AK-47 without arising official suspicion is a difficult task. In France, driving halfway across the continent with such a gun in the trunk of your car is a real possibility.

Without the widespread availability of such guns, anyone seeking a firearm for criminal purposes in Britain will need to get creative. In 2014, the Birmingham Mail reported that criminals in the city had been forced to use "plundered war trophies and collectible weapons, sometimes more than 100 years old." In fact, during the 2011 riots in the city, experts discovered that a late 19th-century St. Etienne revolver had been fired. In other instances, flare guns and replica weapons had been retrofitted in an attempt to make them deadlier.

More sophisticated guns are often in drastically short supply. Handguns have been sold for more than 10 times the price at which they could be purchased in the United States. This sometimes leads to elaborate arrangements between gun dealers and their customers. The Economist has reported that two rival gangs in Birmingham were later found to have used the same gun to shoot each other's members and affiliates. Each had rented the gun from a third party at separate times.

Matt Lewis, the director of Arquebus Solutions, a company that helps governments track illegal firearms, says Britain is seen as a "world leader" in understanding the circulation of illicit firearms. "The UK has arguably the best approach the management of illicit firearms in the E.U., if not across the globe," Lewis says.

Yet gun violence has not been eradicated in Britain. Last year, officials recorded a rise in both homicides and gun-related crime in the country. Numbers compiled by, a global project of the Sydney School of Public Health, found that 146 people died because of gun violence across Britain in 2012, the most recent year for which the group has numbers. There have also been a small number of mass shootings since stricter gun control legislation was put in place: In 2010, a man shot 12 people and injured 11 more before killing himself in a shooting rampage in Cumbria, England.

The shooter in that instance, Derrick Bird, used a double-barrel shotgun and a .22-caliber rifle. He was a licensed firearms holder. According to witnesses, the gun used to shoot Cox on Thursday appeared to be either antique or modified.

"It looked like a gun from, I don't know, the First World War or a makeshift, handmade gun," eyewitness Hichem Ben Abdallah told Sky News. "It's not sort of like the kind of gun you see normally."

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