Have Great Britain's restrictive gun laws contributed to the rise in violent crime?

November 5, 2004

Dear Cecil:

I read an article claiming that as weapon-control laws in England become ever tighter, the crime rate is increasing--that over the past 80 or so years the British government has enacted policies making it harder for individuals to carry any kind of weapon for self-defense, with the result, it was claimed, that you are now six times more likely to be mugged in London than in New York. In addition, you can receive a stiff sentence for defending yourself even if a burglar has invaded your home. One case cited was that of Tony Martin, who lived alone in a rural area. He had been robbed six times before. Mr. Martin's home was broken into again, and he shot and killed one burglar and wounded the other. He was jailed for harming the burglars and later was denied parole because he posed a danger to burglars. Given that the author was an American, and the article in a somewhat conservative periodical, I wondered how much spin had been put on the facts. Is England indeed becoming a haven for burglars while aged pensioners cower in their cottages?

Complicated topic. We proceed in our usual methodical manner:

(1) No doubt about it, crimewise the UK has pretty much gone to the dogs. Violent crime jumped by two-thirds between 1998 and 2003. Crime is higher in the UK than the U.S. in every category except rape and murder.

(2) Some say Britain's increase in crime is a result of disarming the populace. One advocate of this view is U.S. history professor Joyce Lee Malcolm, author of the article you saw as well as the book Guns and Violence: The English Experience (2002). Malcolm claims the British government has virtually eliminated the right to self-defense.

(3) Whatever Malcolm may think, there's no direct correlation between weapons restrictions and crime. As she points out, the UK began requiring gun permits in 1920 and in 1953 prohibited the carrying of concealed weapons, even things like Mace. While a slow rise in the UK crime rate began in the mid-1950s, the rate didn't increase sharply until the 80s. Handguns were banned altogether in 1997.

(4) The Tony Martin case, a cause celebre in Britain, may not be as clear-cut as some claim, but it's still pretty outrageous. The eccentric Martin lived in a dilapidated Norfolk farmhouse with only three rottweilers for company. One night in 1999 the place was broken into by Brendan Fearon, 29, and Fred Barras, 16, both of whom had long criminal records. Martin claims he heard a noise, grabbed a shotgun, headed downstairs, had a flashlight shone in his face, and began shooting. The following afternoon Barras was found dead in the garden; the wounded Fearon was arrested nearby. Martin was convicted of murder and given a mandatory life sentence, but an appeals court reduced the charge to manslaughter on grounds of mental illness. Martin was denied parole, in part because probation officers feared he would shoot additional burglars; he's out now. Fearon, who did time for burglary, was granted legal-aid funding to sue Martin, although the suit failed. OK, the burglars weren't armed, Martin had previously expressed a hatred of Gypsies (Barras was one), and Barras was shot in the back, but many Americans would say: Come on--it was dark and they were in the guy's house.

(5) Although it's an exaggeration to say there's no right to self-defense in Britain, the law there is more restrictive and, in contrast to typical U.S. practice, cuts you no slack if you're defending your home. UK householders who injure a home invader are often hauled up on charges (although they may be acquitted), whereas in the U.S. more commonly you'll get a pass. Malcolm claims that because UK crooks don't fear disarmed householders, half of burglaries there take place while someone is home, a much larger fraction than in the U.S. Not so--close analysis of the data suggests "hot" burglary rates in the two countries aren't dramatically different.

(6) Rising crime in Britain surely has a lot to do with the lousy economy. From 1974 to 1999 the UK unemployment rate averaged more than 10 percent. It's lower now, but a lot of antisocial behavior became entrenched during that time. Soccer hooliganism is one example; I'd say crime in general is another.

(7) A case can be made that folks in the UK are too nice for their own good. In reading parliamentary transcripts and such you're struck by how exasperatingly fair-minded and decent everyone is--not just the lefties, either. One detects little appetite for the draconian measures that some believe have reduced crime in the U.S., notably the harsh sentencing laws that have given us one of the highest imprisonment rates in the world. If present trends continue, though, no doubt the Brits will learn to be assholes just like us.

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