Unlike in America, there is little debate between pro-gun control and pro-gun ownership lobbies in the UK. There is general public consensus against ownership of handguns, which is enforced under strict legislation. Guns for sport are more readily accepted, but are controlled by a strict licensing regime.
Despite these strong sentiments, the UK has not averted gun crime by any means.
Particularly prominent within public memory is the Dunblane massacre. In 1996 a disturbed former boy-scout leader named Thomas Hamilton shot dead sixteen young children and their teacher at Dunblane Primary School before turning the gun on himself. This was the second time in a decade that unarmed civilians had been slaughtered by a legally licensed gun owner.
The combined impact and subsequent public outcry motivated the Conservative government at the time to amend the existing legislation on gun ownership. The Firearms Amendment of 1997 completely banned handguns for private ownership.
Fourteen years after Dunblane, the mass killings in Cumbria carried out by another lone gunman, taxi driver Derrick Bird, once again provoked shock, horror and disbelief across the UK. Twelve people were shot dead on 2nd June, 2010, before the perpetrator, another licensed gun owner, turned the gun on himself. The Home Secretary acknowledged that the shootings would prompt further debate on Britain's gun laws.
In October 2012, the Government announced that, following a public consultation, legislative changes would be introduced to strengthen the laws governing firearms. A new offence of 'possession with intent to supply' would be created and the maximum penalty for illegal importation of firearms increased to life imprisonment.
Despite the handguns ban imposed under the 1997 Firearms Amendment, research carried out following the implementation of the Act saw a 40 per cent increase in the number of gun crime incidents in the UK.
While the number of homicides from gun crime remained largely static for over a decade, 2007 proved a decisive year for this issue. A wave of gang related incidents were committed by teenagers against other teenagers, with some high profile cases ending in fatalities. London, Manchester and Nottingham were most notably affected.
In August 2007, these attacks culminated in the murder of an 11-year-old Liverpool schoolboy, Rhys Jones, hit whilst playing football outside his local pub. Following a lengthy police investigation and a trial lasting over two months, an 18 year old youth, Sean Mercer, a member of the 'Croxteth crew' gang, was convicted in December 2008 of the murder and sentenced to life imprisonment.
Other gang members were convicted of offences connected with the murder, including 21 year old James Yates, whose initial seven year sentence for providing the handgun used by Mercer was increased by the Court of Appeal to 12 years.
The then prime minister, Gordon Brown, came under constant pressure to resolve the issues driving these murders. Commentators highlighted a range of social problems which might be responsible including inner city poverty, family breakdown, and the absence of positive black role models in the UK.
The government also faced questions over the apparent availability of guns, which had remained strong despite the handgun ban. Some commentators also suggested the government's legislation, specifically punishments for carrying a gun, were exacerbating gun crime amongst the young.
Following the mass killings in Cumbria on 2nd June, 2010, Home Secretary Theresa May confirmed that two weapons had been recovered by police, a shotgun and a .22 rifle, and that the gunman, Derrick Bird, had held a shotgun licence since 1995 and a firearms licence (for the .22 rifle) since 2007.
Ms May pledged that when the police had completed their investigations, the Government would lead a debate on the country's gun laws, engaging with "all interested parties" and allowing MPs to contribute to the debate.
Concerns also continued to increase about the use of illegal firearms by street gangs and organised criminals.
In February 2012, the Home Secretary launched a consultation on strengthening the law in this area, in particular whether the penalty should be increased for illegal importation of firearms and also whether there was a need for a new offence of possession of illegal firearms with intent to supply.
The consultation was set to run for 12 weeks and sought the views of the public, the police, the CPS, victims groups, the judiciary, and voluntary organisations.
In its response to the consultation published in October 2012, the Government stated that it was clear there was “strong support for taking a tougher stance on control of prohibited firearms.”
It had been decided, therefore, to increase the maximum penalty for illegal importation of firearms to life imprisonment and to create a new offence of 'possession with intent to supply' . The changes would be implemented as soon as a legislative opportunity arose.
Firearm Crime Statistics
Provisional figures show that 6,285 firearm offences were recorded by the police in the year to September 2011, accounting for 0.2% of all recorded crime. There was a 19% fall in firearm offences in the year to September 2011, compared to the previous year.
In England and Wales firearms were reportedly used in 11,227 offences, 0.3% of all recorded crimes.
There were 7,024 offences in England and Wales in which firearms, excluding air weapons, were reportedly used, a 13% decrease on the previous year, continuing the general decline since 2005/06.
There were 4,203 recorded crimes in which air weapons were reportedly used during 2010/11, a fall of 15% compared with the previous year and 70% below the peak recorded in 2002/03.
In Scotland the police recorded 643 offences which involved the alleged use of a firearm, a 24% decrease on 2009/10. The number of offences has fallen in each of the last four years.
A non-air weapon was alleged to have been used in 410 offences, marginally lower than in 2009/10, while there were 233 alleged air-weapon offences, 45% lower than the previous year.
In England and Wales violence against the person (37%) and robbery offences (26%) accounted for almost two-thirds of all firearm offences recorded by the police in 2010/11. Criminal damage offences represented 29% of all firearm offences recorded.
Due to the different legal system in Scotland it is not possible to provide directly comparable data. ‘Reckless conduct with firearms’ accounted for 21% of alleged firearm offences in 2010/11, minor assault for 17% and robbery for 14%.
9.3% of all homicides committed during 2010/11in England and Wales involved the use of a firearm, the highest proportion since 2001/02. By contrast 2.2% of Scottish homicides involved the use of a firearm.
In England and Wales handguns were the most commonly used firearm, with the weapon accounting for 44% of non-air weapon firearm offences recorded. Imitation weapons were used in 23%, shotguns in 9% and rifles in 1% of such offences.
In Scotland imitation weapons and handguns were used most often, each accounting for 23% and 22% of the total number of non-air weapon firearm offences respectively. The largest proportion of firearm offences involved weapons in the ‘Other firearm’ category.
In England and Wales a firearm was fired in 37% of all non-air weapon offences and in 84% of air weapon offences.
In Scotland a firearm was fired in 40% of all non-air weapon offences and in 76% of air weapon offences.
In England and Wales there were 388 firearm offences in which there was a fatal or serious injury, 13% lower than in 2009/10. The number of offences resulting in slight injury in 2010/11 was 5% lower than the number recorded in the previous year. In almost 80% of firearms offences no injury occurred.
The injury classification is different in Scotland. There were 2 fatal injuries and 109 non-fatal injuries in 2010/11. The total number of injuries was the lowest number recorded for at least a decade.
In England and Wales, in 2010/11, there were on average 13 non-air weapon firearms offences per 100,000 population. The rate was highest in London (35 per 1,000 population), and West Midlands (34). The lowest rate was recorded in Lincolnshire (2.4).
Of the alleged firearms offences in Scotland in 2010/11 the majority (56%) were recorded by Grampian police.
Source: House of Commons - 30 January 2012
Firearms offences are geographically concentrated in London, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands.
At the same time young people are disproportionately the victims of gun crime: 15 to 29-year-olds comprise 20 per cent of the population but were victims in 45 per cent of firearms offences (excluding air weapons) in 2010/11.
The maximum penalty for committing a firearms offence under Section 5 of the Firearms Act 1968, which includes “supply” and “possession” but not “possession with intent to supply” is 10 years’ imprisonment. The mandatory minimum sentence for those aged 18 and over is five years’ imprisonment, and three years for those aged 16-17 years.
Under Section 16 of the 1968 Act it is an offence to possess a firearm with intent to endanger life with a maximum penalty of life imprisonment.
The current maximum penalty for illegally importing firearms or ammunition under Section 170 of the Customs and Excise Management Act 1979, where the weapons are subject to general prohibition under Section 5 of the Firearms Act 1968, is a sentence of 10 years’ imprisonment, an unlimited fine or both.
Source: Home Office – February 2012
Responses to Home Office consultation on firearms law:
We received 96 responses to the consultation with a majority supporting the changes to the legislation outlined in the consultation document.
85% of respondents supported the view that the maximum sentence for illegal importation of firearms should be increased.
76% supported the view that a new offence of possession with intent to supply is needed and should be introduced.
Half of the respondents who supported the creation of a new offence and an increase in the sentence for importation stated that the maximum sentence should be life.
A common statement among respondents with experience in dealing with gun crime was that sentencing provisions for the importation and supply of firearms should be aligned with the importation and supply of class A drugs, which have a maximum sentence of life.
Source: Home Office – October 2012
“The Government is clear that individuals who manufacture, acquire or purchase, sell or transfer or possess for sale or transfer prohibited guns for criminal use should face a punishment commensurate to the level of harm their actions cause to society. Their actions have a disproportionate effect in our communities and it is right that they should face tougher sentences.”
Home Office announcing planned changes to firearms legislation – October 2012