Some responses to “Gun Facts” on the UK crime

I have recently been in correspondence with Guy Smith who runs a web site call Gun Facts. I came across the site because it had some rather odd things to say about crime in the UK. From our e-mail exchange I get the impression that Guy is a very pleasant and honest person but unaware of the impression that his web site gives to a casual observer (to my amazement in one e-mail he said the site was neither pro-gun nor anti-gun).  It is a large site with thousands of “Facts” – so I am just concentrating on the “facts” he supplies about guns and crime in the UK.

Before I dive into them a preamble.

All these facts were supplied to debunk the myth:

Britain has strict gun control and thus a low crime rate

I am not aware of anyone who asserts this particular myth. We don’t have a low crime rate. However, many of the “facts” seem aimed at a different proposition:

The handgun acts of 1997 failed to reduce the availability of guns or lower homicide rates.

In fact these acts were only a reaction to Dunblane and were never expected to generally reduce homicide or gun availability (which was already very low).  As it happens the laws supplied a legal basis for some effective police action in the mid-2000s which did reduce the availability of guns and lower homicide rates. See  this brief article. It also happens that crime, including violent crime, peaked in the late 90s – possibly giving the impression that the handgun acts of 1997 caused the peak. Since then both have dropped dramatically.

And now to the “facts”:

The stuff in purple is what Guy wrote – followed by my response in normal text. It is somewhat complicated by Guy’s practice of occasionally stating a fact in the present tense without a date. I initially understood these statements to be intended to be true at the time I read them but I now think that in some cases he meant them to be true at the time of the source which he links to.

Fact: Since gun banning has escalated in the UK, the rate of crime – especially violent crime – has risen.

False – There is no source, and therefore no date, for this so I can only take it as applying to the present day. Both crime and violent crime have fallen according to both the British Crime Survey (BCS) and police reported crime. There was a short period after the handgun ban in 1997 when crime rose according to the reported crime figures (but not BCS). Since then it has dropped. See Office of National Statistics Crime report for Dec 2014..

Fact: Ironically, firearm use in crimes in the UK has doubled in the decade since handguns were banned.

Unproven – firearm use in crimes relies on the recorded crime statistics (BCS doesn’t ask the question). While these had more or less got their act together in 2007 they were a wreck in 1997 so any comparison is highly suspect (violent crime rates appeared to double in 1998/9 simply through a different method of recording). What is true that the recorded crime statistics show a dramatic decline in firearms and handgun use from 2002/3 through to 2013/14 (from 5,549 to 2,130 in the case of handguns and 24,070 to 7,709 in the case of all firearms)

Fact: Britain has the highest rate of violent crime in Europe, more so than the United States or even South Africa. They also have the second highest overall crime rate in the European Union. In 2008, Britain had a violent crime rate nearly five times higher than the United States (2034 vs. 446 per 100,000 population).

Guy’s source is a Daily Mail story written in 2009 about a European Study.

Unproven Using the Daily Mail as a source is not much better than using the National Enquirer. Unfortunately the Daily Mail doesn’t say which reports it based its story on so there is no way of checking without a lot of tedious work. It is also an old story. National comparisons of crime other than homicide – which is rather clear cut – are notoriously difficult. Different countries have different crimes and different ways of recording them and some are very much out of date. The best reference I could easily find was this – written in 2012 but using data from 2006 because some countries are that far behind. The UK certainly doesn’t come out well compared to other OECD countries – although in no case is it the worst in Europe. We do well on homicide but poorly on rape, robbery and assault. But how about compared to the USA? We do better on homicide (much), we are more or less equally bad on rape and robbery, and worse on assault. Make of that what you will.

Fact: 67% of British residents surveyed believed that “As a result of gun and knife crime [rising], the area I live in is not as safe as it was five years ago.”

Probably true – perception of crime is unfortunately frequently wrong.

Fact: U.K. street robberies soared 28% in 2001. Violent crime was up 11%, murders up 4%, and rapes were up 14%.

AND

Fact: This trend continued in the U.K in 2004 with a 10% increase in street crime, 8% increase in muggings, and a 22% increase in robberies.

Highly deceptive. The reference is to an unnamed BBC news report so it is extremely hard to follow up. However, the figures are based on recorded crime which is discussed above.  The BCS figures which tell a different story are omitted. Moreover the figures seem to be carefully selected. E.g. Murders were up in 2002 because the Shipman enquiry concluded that year that Harold Shipman had murdered at least 215 patients between 1975 and 1998. They were all recorded against the 2002 statistics. If you remove these then murders peaked in 2001 at 854 and have declined ever since to 536 in 2013/14. I got bored looking up the other figures. They don’t change the big picture of declining crime.

Fact: In 1919, before it had any gun control, the U.K. had a homicide rate that was 8% of the U.S. rate. By 1986, and after enacting significant gun control, the rate was 9% – practically unchanged.

Irrelevant That’s nearly 100 years ago. We have a world war since then. The countries have changed vastly.

Fact: “… [There is] nothing in the statistics for England and Wales to suggest that either the stricter controls on handguns prior to 1997 or the ban imposed since have controlled access to such firearms by criminals.”

Possibly true preceding a quote by the word “fact” doesn’t make the quote true. This was presumably the opinion of Colin Greenwood in 2003. It would require some evidence to back this up. There is little doubt that things have changed significantly since 2003.

Fact: Comparing crime rates between America and Britain is fundamentally flawed. In America, a gun crime is recorded as a gun crime. In Britain, a crime is only recorded when there is a final disposition (a conviction). All unsolved gun crimes in Britain are not reported as gun crimes, grossly undercounting the amount of gun crime there. 23 To make matters worse, British law enforcement has been exposed for falsifying criminal reports to create falsely lower crime figures, in part to preserve tourism.

True. You can’t compare gun crime – nor can you compare violent crime rates.

Fact: An ongoing parliamentary inquiry in Britain into the growing number of black market weapons has concluded that there are more than three million illegally held firearms in circulation – double the number believed to have been held 10 years ago – and that criminals are more willing than ever to use them. One in three criminals under the age of 25 possesses or has access to a firearm.

Based on a source dated 2000.

AND

Fact: Handgun homicides in England and Wales reached an all-time high in 2000, years after a virtual ban on private handgun ownership. More than 3,000 crimes involving handguns were recorded in 1999-2000, including 42 homicides, 310 cases of attempted murder, 2,561 robberies and 204 burglaries.

AND

Fact: Handguns were used in 3,685 British offenses in 2000 compared with 2,648 in 1997, an increase of 40%. It is interesting to note:

  • Of the 20 areas with the lowest number of legal firearms, 10 had an above average level of “gun crime.”
  • Of the 20 areas with the highest levels of legal guns, only 2 had armed crime levels above the average.

Possibly true. All three of these were about handgun use in 2000. This was shortly after the handgun ban and before the police initiatives in the mid-2000s that drove down illegally held firearms. It takes time for a law to have an effect and it needs to be enforced. Police action during the mid-2000’s dramatically changed the picture.

Fact: Between 1997 and 1999, there were 429 murders in London, the highest two-year figure for more than 10 years – nearly two-thirds of those involved firearms – in a country that has virtually banned private firearm ownership.

False. Wikipedia includes a table of homicides in London from 1990 to 2014 which is based on borough level crime figures.  Guy’s statement is rather confusing. The total homicides for the three years 1997, 98 and 99 come to 495. I can’t make any two years come to 429. These were not outstandingly high compared to the previous 10 years. For example, the total for 90, 91 and 92 was 543. I have no idea about the percentage of firearms.

Fact: Over the last century, the British crime rate was largely unchanged. In the late nineteenth century, the per capita homicide rate in Britain was between 1.0 and 1.5 per 100,000. In the late twentieth century, after a near ban on gun ownership, the homicide rate is around 1.4. This implies that the homicide rate did not vary with either the level of gun control or gun availability.

Partly true. The rates are reasonable (they agree with figures in the International Handbook of Violence – the only source I could find on-line). The third sentence needs careful interpretation. If it is taken to mean that homicide rates did not correlate with gun control or gun availability – that is correct. If it is taken to mean that the figures are evidence that gun control/availability has had no effect on homicide rates then that is unreasonable. You couldn’t possibly read that into the figures without taking notice of all the other factors that affect reported homicide rates. No one who thinks about it would claim that gun control/availability is the only factor affecting homicide rates.

Fact: The U.K. has strict gun control and a rising homicide rate of 1.4 per 100,000. Switzerland has the highest per capita firearm ownership rate on the planet (all males age 20 to 42 are required to keep rifles or pistols at home) and has a homicide rate of 1.2 per 100,000. To date, there has never been a schoolyard massacre in Switzerland.

Source dated 1999.

Debatable. Although the source was dated 1999 I think the argument holds today (the UK and Swiss murder rates have both  dropped). Switzerland very likely has the highest proportion of households owning a gun as this is required by law. However, it is far from having the most guns per capita. According to the 2007 small arms survey the Swiss have about 45.7 guns per 100 people. The US has 88.8 guns per 100 people. Nevertheless it is true that gun ownership in Switzerland is much higher than in the UK (6.2 per 100 people). However, this is a misleading. Switzerland has high gun ownership but pretty strict gun control. For example, it is illegal to carry a loaded firearm in public without special permission and there are rules on carrying any firearm loaded or not.

Fact: “… the scale of gun crime in the capital [London] has forced senior officers to set up a specialist unit to deal with … shootings.”

Source dated: 2001 

True.  England has a low tolerance of gun crime. The unit was effective, reducing gun homicide, homicide and gun availability in the capital. Gun control is not just laws.

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