When police on a weapons raid swarmed a housing project after London’s 2011 riots, they seized a cache of arms that in the United States might be better suited to “Antiques Roadshow” than inner-city ganglands. Inside plastic bags hidden in a trash collection room, officers uncovered two archaic flintlock pistols, retrofitted flare guns and a Jesse James-style revolver.
These days, that kind of antiquated firepower is about the baddest a British gang member can get. Spurred to action by a series of mass shootings — including one startlingly similar to the Sandy Hook Elementary School tragedy in Connecticut — Britain entered an era of national soul-searching in which legislative bans on assault weapons and handguns were pushed through and background checks for other types of firearms dramatically tightened.
Moving to combat gun violence, police also launched rounds of anti-gun sweeps during the past decade in major cities from London to Liverpool. Even Olympics-style starting pistols are now banned.
The results here hold lessons for the United States as it debates a major reexamination of gun laws. In Britain, a nation of 63 million people, more than 200,000 guns and 700 tons of ammunition have been taken off the streets during the past 15 years, with offenders in search of firearms now resorting to rebuilt antique weapons, homemade bullets and even illicit “rent-a-gun” schemes. Legal guns — including some types of rifles and shotguns largely suitable for farms and sport — must be kept in locked boxes bolted to floors or walls and are subject to random police inspection and vigorous inquiries about the mental health and family life of owners.
Britain has seen one mass shooting since its most onerous gun ban went through in 1997, with criminologists arguing that a 2010 rampage in the British countryside could have been worse had the perpetrator had access to stronger firepower. Today, law enforcement officials say ballistic tests indicate that most gun crime in Britain can be traced back to fewer than 1,000 illegal weapons still in circulation.
Statistics, however, suggest that the gun bans alone did not have an immediate impact on firearm-related crime. Over time, however, gun violence in virtually all its guises has significantly come down with the aid of stricter enforcement and waves of police anti-weapons operations. The most current statistics available show that firearms were used to kill 59 people in all of England and Wales in 2011, compared with 77 such homicides that same year in Washington, D.C., alone.
“What we have in the U.K. now are significantly lower levels of gun crime, levels that continue to fall today,” said Andy Marsh, firearms director at Britain’s Association of Chief Police Officers. “People say you can’t unwind hundreds of years of gun history and culture [in America], but here in the U.K., we’ve learned from our tragedies and taken steps to reduce the likelihood of them ever happening again.”
This has happened in a country that has also been scarred by shooting rampages. Armed with assault weapons, including a Chinese copy of a Kalashnikov AK-47, Michael Robert Ryan, an unemployed laborer, gunned down 16 people in Hungerford, England, in 1987. A decade later, 43-year-old Thomas Hamilton entered the Dunblane Primary School in Scotland at 9:35 a.m. on March 13, 1996, using Browning pistols and Smith & Wesson revolvers to kill 15 children and their teacher.
In both instances, Parliament responded with sweeping new bans. A 1988 ban after the Hungerford massacre outlawed semiautomatic weapons and limited sales of some types of shotguns, a move that experts say was partly symbolic because such weapons in Britain were exceedingly rare. Crime statistics from the late 1980s and 1990s indicate the measure failed to have a significant impact on firearm-related crime. But criminologists say the ban appears to have inhibited the spread of the most lethal kind of weaponry in Britain in later decades.
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.
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.