Most shooters would be familiar with the US and its relaxed firearm legislation and high rate of gun crime but what about the UK with its strict laws and surge in handgun violence. On August 22 last year the country was horrified by a senseless tragedy in which a masked gunman, pursuing another person, shot dead nine-year-old Olivia Pratt-Korbel and wounded her mother in their Liverpool home. The gunman fled in a waiting car in what appears to have been a drug-related incident, police subsequently making several arrests and charging a man with the child’s murder.
Olivia was the third person shot in Liverpool that week with data from the UK Home Office revealing two out of three police force areas in England and Wales are reporting rising gun crime, one of them facing levels which have escalated six-fold in a decade. Yet Britain routinely defends the rigour of its gun laws, especially in any discussion involving the US. Private ownership of handguns is banned completely, so what’s going on?
Criminals of course. Firearm crime statistics released by the House of Commons in July 2022 show there were 35 shooting murders in the year to March 31, 2021 – six per cent of all homicides in that period. The interesting data is buried in the figures which give a clear indication of just how many legal and illegal firearms were involved in those 35 deaths with just two of them licensed, 30 unlicensed and three unknown.
Naturally these numbers vary year-on-year but criminal use of guns for murder has consistently far exceeded those by licensed shooters and it’s much the same in Australia. For example in 2019-20 in the UK, seven legal guns were used to commit murder as opposed to 15 by crims and five unknown while in 2018-19 one licensed firearm was used for murder with 26 by criminals and four unknown.
And there’s plenty of other gun crime which falls well short of murder. England and Wales (not Scotland and Northern Ireland) makes the curious practice (to Australian shooters) of separately recording crime committed with airguns (31 per cent) and non-air firearms (5709 offences or 69 per cent). That’s because there are a lot of airguns there and they’ve never been heavily regulated, unlike Australia where air rifles fall into Class A alongside rimfire rifles and shotguns with air pistols going into Class H with handguns.
Anyone over 18 in the UK can buy and use an air rifle or air pistol provided it doesn’t exceed the power limit of 6ft/lbs for air pistols and 12 for rifles. Over those limits it’s treated as a regular firearm requiring a Firearms Certificate (licence) and by law, criminal misuse of any air arm is treated as if it was misuse of a conventional firearm.
Home Office stats go into some details about other types of gun offences, headed by violence against the person, criminal damage (mostly involving air arms), possession and robbery. What stands out is the prevalence of handguns – 2125 offences including 24 deaths against 56 for rifles with only one death. Shotguns were used in 295 offences with six deaths, sawn-off shotguns in 241 with two deaths while imitation firearms featured in 1438 with, of course, no loss of life.
Throughout its colonial history Britain imposed few restrictions on firearms but that began to change in the 20th century, firstly with the 1903 Pistols Act which imposed some restrictions on buying handguns including a prohibition on sales to anyone mentally ill or drunk. That was followed by the 1920 Firearms Act which introduced certificates and a licensing regime prompted by an influx of guns after World War One and rising concerns they could be used for revolution by the disaffected working classes.
Over the years various laws added further restrictions but the current regime very much stems from two incidents, both mass murders by licensed shooters using legally-owned firearms. In August 1987 at Hungerford in England, a man shot dead 16 people then himself using a handgun and a pair of semi-automatic rifles and, like our Port Arthur tragedy, the result was a ban on self-loading centrefire rifles though .22 self-loaders remain legal.
On March 13, 1996 a man used four legally-owned handguns to shoot dead 16 primary school students, their teacher and himself at Dunblane in Scotland. This occurred just six weeks before Port Arthur and some expert opinion suggests the media coverage of Dunblane inspired the Tasmanian killer. The UK government responded to Dunblane with a complete ban on private ownership of handguns with a few exemptions for collectable antiques and that ended competitive handgun shooting in Britain, even at Olympic level, though it’s possible for dedicated UK athletes to train in mainland Europe.
That ban clearly means handgun crime is wholly down to criminals and to keep all this in perspective, the UK crime and murder rate remains low compared to other developed nations and its long-term trend in gun crime is downwards. The country has an overall murder rate comparable to that of Australia.
Latest figures from the Australian Institute of Criminology’s national homicide monitoring program show there were 278 murder victims in 261 incidents in 2019-20 for a rate of 1.08 per 100,000 population. A gun was used in 34 of those. UK figures for the same period show 695 victims at a rate of 1.17 per 100,000 population, a substantial increase on the previous year due to a single incident in which 39 perished in a people smuggler’s truck. Knives account for the majority of murder victims with 37 per cent (104 victims) in Australia and 39 per cent (235) in Britain.
Criminologist Professor Peter Squires, a UK authority on gun crime, notes two types of illegal firearms have tended to pre-occupy gun control researchers – ‘grey’ firearms which tend to be souvenirs and antiques deemed to pose little threat. The threat tends to come from illegal weapons in the possession of offenders, he wrote on The Conversation website, but unless a gun is recovered by police or fired in the course of an offence it will remain (largely) unknown.
The UK National Ballistic Intelligence Service (NABIS) lists what it terms ‘criminally active’ firearms, derived from witness reports or ballistic evidence, research indicating around 90 per cent of guns are only ever used once and anything which doesn’t resurface for 12 months falls off the active list. Many of these are dumped, most commonly in the nearest canal. Only a small number of firearms are used multiple times with NABIS suggesting there are around 1000 criminally active firearms in Britain, a surprisingly small number and an interesting concept which would also appear to apply in Australia.
So where do UK criminals source their firearms? The problem is its proximity to Europe where guns haven’t always been rigorously regulated and exist in large numbers after the demise of the former Soviet Union and a succession of wars, most recently in the Balkans. Illegal guns enter the country the way same as drugs, concealed inside cargo from the Continent while some British service personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have been responsible for importing an unknown number of firearms including AK-pattern assault rifles.
British police encounter many reactivated imitation and blank-firing handguns termed ‘junk weapons’ which are neither reliable nor safe and the same applies to so-called ‘slam guns’, basically a crudely-machined steel tube, suggesting fully operational firearms are actually quite difficult to acquire. Most UK gang violence and gun crime occurs in large urban centres and effective police action has been hindered by cutbacks, particularly at street level, as evidence shows that where they have directed personnel and resources specifically at gun crime, it has had a significant impact.
In 1998 London’s Metropolitan Police launched Operation Trident to target rising gang-related gun crime, particularly among the city’s black communities and in 2004 police in Manchester launched Operation XCalibre for the same reason, both proving effective at reducing gun crime. Yet heavy-handed tactics were also directed at legitimate owners such as collector Mick Shepherd who police claimed supplied the guns used in 14 gang-related shootings and three murders. They were not and after nine months in custody he was acquitted on all 13 charges after lawyers successfully argued his large antiques collection was entirely legal.