Gun Laws and Crime in Other English-Speaking Countries

December 29, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Great Britain and Australia, according to the title of an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, provide “Two Cautionary Tales of Gun Control.”  In both countries, the government responded to a massacre by passing more stringent gun laws. 

The author of the “Cautionary Tales” op-ed is Joyce Lee Malcolm, and she surely knows more about this than I do. She’s a professor at George Mason, and she’s written a book, Guns and Violence: The English Experience, published by Harvard. And she provides some data.  For example, she refers to the UK “Firearms Act of 1998, which instituted a nearly complete ban on handguns.” 
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.
I’m not sure which government report she’s referring to, but here’s a graph from one I found, the Home Office Statistical Bulletin.

(Click on the graph for a larger and clearer view.)

For two years following the Firearms Act, handgun crime increased.  But a decade later, in 2008, handgun crime was only slightly higher than it had been a decade earlier.  Today it’s lower than it was the year of the Firearms Act.*  Prof. Malcolm must have been looking at some other government report.  In this graph, starting in 2000, handgun crimes decrease markedly.  At the same time, the number of crimes committed with “imitation guns” increases.  I don’t know about you, but if I had to face a robber, I’d much prefer one armed with a fake gun than a real one.  So if this is a substitution effect caused by the law, that would seem to be a positive outcome.  Here in the US, we accept no substitutes. When it come to guns, our robbers have the real thing.

The stricter gun law in Great Britain was passed after a school shooting similar to Newtown.  The law, Malcolm says, was the result of  “media frenzy coupled with an emotional campaign by parents [of victims].”  You know how .parents can get emotional when their kids are slaughtered. The media too can devote a lot of coverage to that sort of thing, especially in a country where it rarely happens. To see the effects of the law, what crime should we look at? As Malcolm implies, what gets the media in a frenzy and causes the parents of victims to be emotional is murder.  So  I would have thought that to check on the effects of the law, the first crime to look at would be homicide.  But curiously, in her WSJ article, Malcolm makes no mention of it.  Still, I was curious, and I managed to find this graph showing the trend in homicides.

I’m not sure which “cautionary tale” these numbers are telling.  The downward trend in the graph in the last decade is hardly support for the idea that the gun law has made things worse.**  The British are killing each other less often – 550 last year, about 10% of them with guns.  The 550 homicides translate to rate of 9 murders per million.  The comparable rate in the US is five times that, about 48 per million.

Australia too passed a strict gun law following a mass murder in 1996.  Malcolm summarizes the crime data:
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.

It’s hard to see how the gun law might have affected assaults and sexual assaults, and in any case, the rise in these crimes began before the gun law, as did the decrease in gun homicides.  On the other hand, it’s much easier to imagine how the gun law could have led to a reduction in armed robbery.

Here is Malcolm’s conclusion from all the evidence.
Strict gun laws in Great Britain and Australia haven’t made their people noticeably safer, nor have they prevented massacres.            

As I say, Malcolm must know much more about crime in Great Britain and Australia than I do. But the graphs do make it look as though people in those countries are in fact safer than they were twelve years ago.  As for mass murders, gun restrictions cannot “prevent massacres” if that phrase means “prevent all massacres.”  The question is whether gun laws that restrict the availability of guns, especially guns that can shoot a lot of bullets, can reduce the number of such incidents and the number of victims.  I don’t have the trends in those numbers for Great Britain or Australia.  I wish Malcolm had provided them in her op-ed, but she did not.

* The Home Office report shows data going back only ten years.  The numbers for 1998 and 1999 are slightly lower than in 2000.  Also, these are numbers, not rates.  In that decade, the population of the UK increased by about 2.5%.  A graph of rates per population would show a somewhat larger decline.

** As the fine print under the graphs says, the highest bars in the graph, 2002-3, include 172 victims of a serial killer, Harold Shipman.  The Home Office apparently assigned all these to the year Shipman was convicted, though the murders happened over the course of many years.


Andrew Gelman said...


You ask, "I’m not sure which 'cautionary tale' these numbers are telling." Given that the WSJ op-ed audience is presumably looking for reasons to oppose liberal (in the U.S. sense) measures such as gun control, perhaps the cautionary aspect is that here are some examples where gun control was followed by a decrease in crime, hence pro-gun activists should be cautious before pointing to such examples.

The more interesting question is: how did it happen that gun proliferation became such an important cause of the WSJ editorial page, to go along with flat taxes and all the rest.

Jay Livingston said...

Somehow, I don't think WSJ intended to caution its readers against opposing gun control. The pro-gun idea seems to fit with the small-government ideology -- shrink the beast and all that. What's interesting is that the NRA belief -- "The government cannot protect you so you have to protect yourself" -- has been transformed into "The government should not try to protect you."

Ammo said...

The guns crime graph is continuously same from last few years.