UK gun control offers model for US
Effective laws prompted by mass shootings
LONDON — 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 urban 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. Now, that kind of antiquated firepower is about the baddest a gang member can get.
Spurred to action by a series of mass shootings — including one startlingly similar to the Sandy Hook 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 tightened.
Moving to combat gun violence, police also launched rounds of antigun 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 the Britain, a nation of 62 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 inquires 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 less 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 antiweapons operations.
The most current statistics available show that firearms were used to kill 59 people in England and Wales in 2011, compared with 77 such homicides that same year in the District of Columbia alone.
‘‘What we have in the UK 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 UK, 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 an 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 as such weapons in Britain were exceedingly rare.
Crime statistics from the late 1980s and 1990s indicate that 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.