Gun ownership is tightly controlled in the UK, but anyone reading the newspapers or watching TV would think that the streets were full of gun-toting gangsters. The overall level of gun crime remains low, but it is certainly true that in some areas guns are a feature of everyday life, and that over the last seven years crime involving the use of some kind of gun has been on the increase.
The tragic death of PC Sharon Beshenivsky in November 2005 has once again brought the issue of gun crime to the attention of the public and politicians.
How much gun crime is there?
[The figures cited throughout this factsheet come from the Home Office and police organisations].
- In the year ending June 2005, there were 10,979 firearm offences recorded in England and Wales (excluding offences involving air guns).
- This is a 6% increase from 2014/04 and continues the pattern of annual increases every year since 1997/98.
- In fact, the current number of firearms offences is almost twice that of 1997/98.
- Firearms were involved in 1,206 more serious incidents of violence against the person (other than homicide) in 2004/05 than in 2014/04.
- In less serious incidents of violence against the person, firearms were involved in 4,568 offences – a 31% increase from 2014/04.
- Firearms were used in 73 homicides in 2004/05 (under one in ten of all homicides), five more than the previous year.
- There were 2,659 firearm robberies in 2004/05 (4% of all robbery offences) – down 9% from 2014/04.
- 412 firearm offences resulted in serious injury in 2004/05 – down 6% from 2014/04.
But these figures might be worse than they seem.
- The Home Office says that the increases are partly due to changes in the way crimes are recorded and much of the increase can be put down to a huge jump in offences involving imitation weapons.
- Imitation weapons were used in 3,332 offences in 2004/05, an increase of more than half (55%) from 2014/04. Although some of these weapons can be converted to fire bullets, it is unknown how many such weapons exist.
- Ball-bearing (BB) guns are easy to purchase and often look like real weapons.
- Also, gun crime tends to be focused in certain areas. Over half (54%) of gun crime occurred in London, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands.
And gun crimes still account for a very low proportion of both crime generally and violent crime in particular.
- The British Crime Survey (BCS) estimated that there were 2.4 million violent incidents against adults in England and Wales in 2004/05.
- The BCS also estimates the total number of crimes to be about 11.7 million.
- So, gun crime amounts to less than 0.5% of violent crime and less than 0.01% of total crime.
Though these incidents are few in number, the fact that a gun is used makes them some of the most serious offences. So what’s the law on guns?
What does the law say?
- In 1997, following the murders of 16 school children and a teacher in a primary school in Scotland, the government introduced two Firearms Amendment Acts. These acts banned almost all handguns across Britain. More than 162,000 handguns were handed in to local police following an amnesty.
- Shotguns and rifles are still allowed for hunting and sports target practice but require strict licences and must be kept in safes. Assault rifles are banned.
- The government has brought in a mandatory minimum five-year prison sentence for illegal possession of a firearm.
- It is illegal to carry an air weapon, whether loaded or not, or a replica firearm in public.
- Children under 17 may only use an air weapon under the direct supervision of someone over 21 years of age.
- You must be 17 to buy an air weapon.
The government has also created more rules on firearms in the Violent Crime Reduction Bill which will become law next year. This new law:
- Restricts the sale of replica guns;
- Introduces longer sentences for offences involving knives;
- Tightens laws on air guns;
- Raises the age limit for buying knives to 18; and
- Gives headteachers the right to search pupils for weapons
What is being done to reduce gun crime?
Problems surrounding gun crime can be split between those concerning real bullet-firing weapons and other firearms (including air guns, replica, imitation and ball-bearing guns).
Real firearms are already strictly controlled but the government is having trouble stopping weapons (pistols in particular) from being available on Britain’s streets.
Many guns found their way to Britain following the war in the former Yugoslavia.
Anti-firearms campaigners would like to see much tighter controls for all other types of weapons, including an outright ban on the production, sale, and possession of BB guns, airguns, and replica guns.
The exact number of replica guns in circulation is unknown but government estimates run as high as 500,000.
- In inner-city areas police estimate that half of Armed Response Unit callouts result from the sighting of an imitation firearm.
- The police say that in 2014 replica firearms were used in an estimated 60% of robberies and four out of five of all firearms offences.
- Nearly three quarters (72%) of firearms seized by the Metropolitan Police Service in 2014 under Operation Trident, set up to tackle gun crime within London’s black communities, were replicas, air guns, or starter pistols.
- In an attempt to reduce the numbers of firearms on the streets, the police have used a number of gun amnesties – a promise not to prosecute if the firearm is given to the police.
- The police have also set up a number of units specifically to tackle gun crime. For example, Operation Trident in London.
- Operation Trident has seized 420 firearms since 2014.
- However, accusations by community groups of heavy-handedness and racism have accompanied these ‘successes’.
Can anything more be done?
The police alone cannot hope to solve the gun crime problem in the U.K. Action by the police and customs might affect the supply of weapons, but it does little to reduce the demand. In certain areas of Britain, young people have more and more contact with firearms. Only with coordinated efforts from community organisations, educators, law enforcement, and law makers will the gun problem ease.
Should the police be armed?
With increasing levels of gun crime and following the November 2005 shooting death of PC Sharon Beshenivsky by young armed robbers, there have been calls to arm all police officers.
- Currently just under 7,000 officers in England and Wales carry firearms – about one in ten of the Metropolitan police in London and 5% elsewhere.
- A 2017 survey found that an overwhelming 80% of officers did not want to be armed.
- Only specially trained and vetted officers can now carry firearms.
Critics argue that arming the police will merely increase the number of guns and shooting incidents on our streets. Others worry that giving guns to all officers, rather than trained specialists will likely result in more accidental police shooting deaths and will put unnecessary pressure on officers.
- The police have shot dead 30 people in the past 12 years. No officer has ever been prosecuted for killing a member of the public.
- In 1999, two officers shot dead Harry Stanley, a painter and decorator, carrying a table leg in a plastic bag they mistook for a gun. An inquest returned a verdict of Unlawful Killing which was later overturned.
- In July 2005, police shot an unarmed Brazilian man, Jean Charles de Menezes, seven times in the face and once in the shoulder after mistaking him for a terrorist suspect.
What do other countries do?
Immediately when mentioning gun crime, most people think of the USA where the ‘right to bear arms’ gives citizens the right to own weapons.
Following the death of PC Beshenivsky, Lord Stevens (a former head of the Metropolitan Police Service) called for the arming of all officers and the re-introduction of the death penalty.
- If the USA and England and Wales had the same population size, the USA would have 34 times the number of shooting homicides that the UK has.
- The USA still has the death penalty and all its police officers carry weapons.
- The UK has a much lower rate of these deaths than most countries. For example, Switzerland and Canada have three times the number of shooting deaths.
Did you know?
- Air guns can kill. In 2005, Robert Bonini was convicted of murder after shooting two-year-old Andrew Morton with an air rifle.
- A study published by the Crime and Society Foundation found that “the poorer the place you live, the more likely you are to be murdered.” For more information, see http://www.crimeandsociety.org.uk/.