Joyce Lee Malcolm: Two Cautionary Tales of Gun Control
After a school massacre, the U.K. banned handguns in 1998. A decade later, handgun crime had doubled.
By JOYCE LEE MALCOLM
Americans are determined that massacres such as happened in Newtown, Conn., never happen again. But how? Many advocate more effective treatment of mentally-ill people or armed protection in so-called gun-free zones. Many others demand stricter control of firearms.
We aren't alone in facing this problem. Great Britain and Australia, for example, suffered mass shootings in the 1980s and 1990s. Both countries had very stringent gun laws when they occurred. Nevertheless, both decided that even stricter control of guns was the answer. Their experiences can be instructive.
In 1987, Michael Ryan went on a shooting spree in his small town of Hungerford, England, killing 16 people (including his mother) and wounding another 14 before shooting himself. Since the public was unarmed—as were the police—Ryan wandered the streets for eight hours with two semiautomatic rifles and a handgun before anyone with a firearm was able to come to the rescue.
Nine years later, in March 1996, Thomas Hamilton, a man known to be mentally unstable, walked into a primary school in the Scottish town of Dunblane and shot 16 young children and their teacher. He wounded 10 other children and three other teachers before taking his own life.
Since 1920, anyone in Britain wanting a handgun had to obtain a certificate from his local police stating he was fit to own a weapon and had good reason to have one. Over the years, the definition of "good reason" gradually narrowed. By 1969, self-defense was never a good reason for a permit.
After Hungerford, the British government banned semiautomatic rifles and brought shotguns—the last type of firearm that could be purchased with a simple show of fitness—under controls similar to those in place for pistols and rifles. Magazines were limited to two shells with a third in the chamber.
Dunblane had a more dramatic impact. Hamilton had a firearm certificate, although according to the rules he should not have been granted one. A media frenzy coupled with an emotional campaign by parents of Dunblane resulted in the Firearms Act of 1998, which instituted a nearly complete ban on handguns. Owners of pistols were required to turn them in. The penalty for illegal possession of a pistol is up to 10 years in prison.
The results have not been what proponents of the act wanted. Within a decade of the handgun ban and the confiscation of handguns from registered owners, crime with handguns had doubled according to British government crime reports. Gun crime, not a serious problem in the past, now is. Armed street gangs have some British police carrying guns for the first time. Moreover, another massacre occurred in June 2010. Derrick Bird, a taxi driver in Cumbria, shot his brother and a colleague then drove off through rural villages killing 12 people and injuring 11 more before killing himself.
Meanwhile, law-abiding citizens who have come into the possession of a firearm, even accidentally, have been harshly treated. In 2009 a former soldier, Paul Clarke, found a bag in his garden containing a shotgun. He brought it to the police station and was immediately handcuffed and charged with possession of the gun. At his trial the judge noted: "In law there is no dispute that Mr. Clarke has no defence to this charge. The intention of anybody possessing a firearm is irrelevant." Mr. Clarke was sentenced to five years in prison. A public outcry eventually won his release.
In November of this year, Danny Nightingale, member of a British special forces unit in Iraq and Afghanistan, was sentenced to 18 months in military prison for possession of a pistol and ammunition. Sgt. Nightingale was given the Glock pistol as a gift by Iraqi forces he had been training. It was packed up with his possessions and returned to him by colleagues in Iraq after he left the country to organize a funeral for two close friends killed in action. Mr. Nightingale pleaded guilty to avoid a five-year sentence and was in prison until an appeal and public outcry freed him on Nov. 29.
Six weeks after the Dunblane massacre in 1996, Martin Bryant, an Australian with a lifelong history of violence, attacked tourists at a Port Arthur prison site in Tasmania with two semiautomatic rifles. He killed 35 people and wounded 21 others.
At the time, Australia's guns laws were stricter than the United Kingdom's. In lieu of the requirement in Britain that an applicant for permission to purchase a gun have a "good reason," Australia required a "genuine reason." Hunting and protecting crops from feral animals were genuine reasons—personal protection wasn't.
With new Prime Minister John Howard in the lead, Australia passed the National Firearms Agreement, banning all semiautomatic rifles and semiautomatic and pump-action shotguns and imposing a more restrictive licensing system on other firearms. The government also launched a forced buyback scheme to remove thousands of firearms from private hands. Between Oct. 1, 1996, and Sept. 30, 1997, the government purchased and destroyed more than 631,000 of the banned guns at a cost of $500 million.
To what end? While there has been much controversy over the result of the law and buyback, Peter Reuter and Jenny Mouzos, in a 2003 study published by the Brookings Institution, found homicides "continued a modest decline" since 1997. They concluded that the impact of the National Firearms Agreement was "relatively small," with the daily rate of firearms homicides declining 3.2%.
According to their study, the use of handguns rather than long guns (rifles and shotguns) went up sharply, but only one out of 117 gun homicides in the two years following the 1996 National Firearms Agreement used a registered gun. Suicides with firearms went down but suicides by other means went up. They reported "a modest reduction in the severity" of massacres (four or more indiscriminate homicides) in the five years since the government weapons buyback. These involved knives, gas and arson rather than firearms.
In 2008, the Australian Institute of Criminology reported a decrease of 9% in homicides and a one-third decrease in armed robbery since the 1990s, but an increase of over 40% in assaults and 20% in sexual assaults.
What to conclude? Strict gun laws in Great Britain and Australia haven't made their people noticeably safer, nor have they prevented massacres. The two major countries held up as models for the U.S. don't provide much evidence that strict gun laws will solve our problems.
Ms. Malcolm, a professor of law at George Mason University Law School, is the author of several books including "Guns and Violence: The English Experience," (Harvard, 2002).
A version of this article appeared December 27, 2012, on page A13 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Two Cautionary Tales of Gun Control.