Banning Guns Has Backfired

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Worried that even showing a starting pistol in a car ad might encourage gun crime in Britain, the British communications regulator has banned a Ford Motor Co. television spot because in it a woman is pictured holding such a “weapon.” According to a report by Bloomberg News, the ad was said by regulators to “normalize” the use of guns and “must not be shown again.”

What’s next? Toy guns? Actually, the British government this year has been debating whether to ban toy guns. As a middle course, some unspecified number of imitation guns will be banned, and it will be illegal to take imitation guns into public places.

And in July a new debate erupted over whether those who own shotguns must now justify their continued ownership to the government before they will get a license.

The irony is that after gun laws are passed and crime rises, no one asks whether the original laws actually accomplished their purpose. Instead, it is automatically assumed that the only “problem” with past laws was they didn’t go far enough. But now what is there left to do? Perhaps the country can follow Australia’s recent lead and ban ceremonial swords.

Despite the attention that imitation weapons are getting, they account for a miniscule fraction of all violent crime (0.02%) and in recent years only about 6% of firearms offenses. But with crime so serious, Labor needs to be seen as doing something. The government recently reported that gun crime in England and Wales nearly doubled in the four years from 1998—99 to 2002—03.

Crime was not supposed to rise after handguns were banned in 1997. Yet, since 1996 the serious violent crime rate has soared by 69%: robbery is up by 45% and murders up by 54%. Before the law, armed robberies had fallen by 50% from 1993 to 1997, but as soon as handguns were banned the robbery rate shot back up, almost back to their 1993 levels.

The 2000 International Crime Victimization Survey, the last survey done, shows the violent-crime rate in England and Wales was twice the rate in the U.S. When the new survey for 2004 comes out, that gap will undoubtedly have widened even further as crimes reported to British police have since soared by 35%, while declining 6% in the U.S.

The high crime rates have so strained resources that 29% of the time in London it takes police longer than 12 minutes to arrive at the scene. No wonder police nearly always arrive on the crime scene after the crime has been committed.

As understandable as the desire to “do something” is, Britain seems to have already banned most weapons that can help commit a crime. Yet, it is hard to see how the latest proposals will accomplish anything.

  • Banning guns that fire blanks and some imitation guns. Even if guns that fire blanks are converted to fire bullets, they would be lucky to fire one or two bullets and most likely pose more danger to the shooter than the victim. Rather than replace the barrel and the breach, it probably makes more sense to simply build a new gun.

  • Making it very difficult to get a license for a shotgun and banning those under 18 from using shotguns also adds little. Ignoring the fact that shotguns make excellent self-defense weapons, they are so rarely used in crime, that the Home Office’s report doesn’t even provide a breakdown of crimes committed with shotguns.

Britain is not alone in its experience with banning guns. Australia has also seen its violent crime rates soar to rates similar to Britain’s after its 1996 Port Arthur gun control measures. Violent crime rates averaged 32% higher in the six years after the law was passed (from 1997 to 2002) than they did the year before the law in 1995. The same comparisons for armed robbery rates showed increases of 74%.

During the 1990s, just as Britain and Australia were more severely regulating guns, the U.S. was greatly liberalizing individuals’ abilities to carry guns. Thirty-seven of the 50 states now have so-called right-to-carry laws that let law-abiding adults carry concealed handguns once they pass a criminal background check and pay a fee. Only half the states require some training, usually around three to five hours’ worth. Yet crime has fallen even faster in these states than the national average. Overall, the states in the U.S. that have experienced the fastest growth rates in gun ownership during the 1990s have experienced the biggest drops in murder rates and other violent crimes.

Many things affect crime; the rise of drug-gang violence in Britain is an important part of the story, just as it has long been important in explaining the U.S.’s rates. Drug gangs also help explain one of the many reasons it is so difficult to stop the flow of guns into a country. Drug gangs can’t simply call up the police when another gang encroaches on their turf, so they end up essentially setting up their own armies. And just as they can smuggle drugs into the country, they can smuggle in weapons to defend their turf.

Everyone wants to take guns away from criminals. The problem is that if the law-abiding citizens obey the law and the criminals don’t, the rules create sitting ducks who cannot defend themselves. This is especially true for those who are physically weaker, women and the elderly.

John Lott [send him mail], a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of The Bias Against Guns (Regnery 2003).

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