Tuesday, October 14, 2003

A shot in the dark

'We are overrun by gun crime, says chief constable.' So reported the Daily Telegraph on 10 October 2003, after a spate of gun killings hit the headlines in recent weeks. In 1981 there were just over 8000 crimes in which firearms were the principal weapons; by 2000/01, that had more than doubled to over 17,000. It is now feared that replica guns are being converted to be able to fire live ammunition. Operation Trident, a high-profile campaign against gun crime in black communities in London, has received glowing tributes from politicians like Diane Abbott, and home secretary David Blunkett has promised more action on gun crime in the next parliament.

Britain already has the toughest gun legislation in the world. Possession of many semi-automatic weapons was banned after the Hungerford massacre in 1987, and the ban was extended to handguns after the Dunblane school shootings in 1996. In January this year, Blunkett announced that illegal possession or use of a gun would carry a minimum five-year sentence.

Yet the murder rate involving guns is low in comparison to other countries. Gun-related homicide accounts for 0.12 deaths per 100,000 people a year in England and Wales. The rate of gun homicides is more than four times greater in Switzerland (where guns are much more widely available legally) and over 30 times higher in the USA. On the other hand, the overall homicide rate in Switzerland is lower than in England and Wales, suggesting that the availability of guns doesn’t necessarily increase murders, but does affect the method used.

In fact, only 0.4 per cent of recorded crimes in Britain are gun-related. Moreover, about 60 per cent of all gun crimes are committed using air weapons, which are currently legal for anyone over 17 years of age. The fact that a handful of murders over the course of a few weeks can become national news is indicative of the overall rarity of such crimes. Even the police think the threat has been exaggerated in recent weeks. Assistant commissioner Tarique Ghaffur, head of the specialist crime directorate at Scotland Yard, told the Guardian: 'I don't want to minimise the impact of gun crime, but the fear is disproportionate to the reality if you look at all the risk factors.' But then, since when did reality get in the way of a good panic?

Gun panic sets in... but is it justified?, Guardian, 11 October 2003

Some facts about guns, Gun Control Network

On This Day: 1987: Gunman kills 14 in Hungerford rampage, BBC News

Crimes recorded by the police in which firearms were reported to have been used, UK Office of National Statistics

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