Shooting down the myth of the ‘gun culture’

For all the hysterical claims about ‘teen gun gangs’ holding whole suburbs hostage, gun crime in Britain remains very rare.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

Has Britain become a ‘war zone’, more dangerous for the ordinary Brit than Iraq is for a British soldier? Is London ‘the most dangerous city in Europe’? Do we Britons live in an ‘increasingly violent society’ where ‘teen gun gangs’ hold whole suburbs hostage? Is there ‘gun terror on our streets’, and is it the product of single parenthood, failing schools, video-game culture or the influence of hip hop on isolated and impressionable youth?

These are some of the wild claims that have been made by politicians and the media following the fatal shootings of three teenagers in different parts of South London over the past week; the gun killing of a 28-year-old man in Hackney in East London at the weekend; and two separate shootings in Moss Side and Longsight in Manchester, which left two men seriously injured. Each of these incidents is a tragedy, in particular the pointless, wasteful snuffing out of young lives in London, where one of the victims was just 15 years old. Yet there is no ‘gun culture’ in Britain. Guns remain a rarity and gun crime represents a tiny proportion of overall crime. Indeed, we are disturbed by these killings precisely because they are thankfully rare occurrences.

The more hysterical response to the killings – the labelling of a few mercifully isolated incidents as a ‘culture’ – seems to be motivated by something other than the facts and figures of gun use. Rather, these tragedies have blown open, for all to see, officialdom’s fear and uncertainty about youth. In the handwringing post-shootings debate about parenting, fathers, teaching styles, curriculum content, the youth criminal justice system and just about everything else, we can glimpse the authorities’ deep doubts about how to relate to and lead young people. The gun killings are individual tragedies that reveal little about our society. The response to the gun killings tells us much more, exposing the elite’s view of the next generation as an alien breed whom they have no idea how to socialise or inspire.

The truth about gun killings

It is ironic that the ‘gun culture’ panic should kick off as the number of gun murders in England and Wales has fallen. According to the Home Office’s Statistical Bulletin 2005/2006, there were 50 homicides involving firearms in 2005/2006, which is 36 per cent lower than in 2004/2005, when there were 78 homicides involving firearms (1). The bulletin says that, although a ‘provisional figure’, the figure of 50 homicides involving firearms for 2005/2006 seems to be ‘the lowest recorded since the late 1980s’ and is certainly the lowest since 1998 (2).

There has been a fall in other kinds of gun crime over the past two years. According to Home Office stats, firearms were used in 21,521 recorded crimes in England and Wales in 2005/2006, representing a fall of six per cent – or 1,375 crimes – compared with 2004/2005. The Home Office says, ‘This is the second consecutive fall in firearm crimes following a five per cent fall in the previous year [2003/2004]’ (3).

It is striking that the gun crime panic should emerge as the most recent figures show that homicide involving firearms is at its lowest for 10 years, and other firearm crimes have fallen over two consecutive years since 2003/2004. This suggests that something other than a real rise in gun crime is driving the ‘gun crime’ hysteria.

More broadly, the homicide figures have remained fairly static over the past 10 years; the alleged influx of guns and gangs does not seem to have contributed to a spike in murder stats. Between 1997 and 2006, the number of homicides in England and Wales per year has hovered between 750 and 900. The number of homicides each year were:

1997 – 739
1997/1998 – 748
1998/1999 – 750
1998/1999 – 750
1999/2000 – 766
2000/2001 – 850
2001/2002 – 891
2002/2003 – 1,047
2003/2004 – 904
2004/2005 – 869
2005/2006 – 765

The strangely high figure for 2002/2003 took into account the 173 people killed by GP Harold Shipman over the previous 20 years. The most recent figure of 765 for 2005/2006 (which includes the 52 people killed in the 7 July bombings of 2005) represents a fall of 12 per cent on the previous year (4).

Homicide by firearm remains a small percentage of these overall homicide figures. The number of such killings each year since 1998 was:

1998/1999 – 49
1999/2000 – 62
2000/2001 – 72
2001/2002 – 95
2002/2003 – 80
2003/2004 – 68
2004/2005 – 77
2005/2006 – 50

These figures show that in any given year homicide by firearm makes up between 8 and 10 per cent of all homicides – and they also show there has been a decline in homicides by firearms over the past five years, from 95 in 2001/2002 to 50 in 2005/2006, the lowest number, apparently, for 10 years (5).

You are still more likely to be killed by feet and fists than by a firearm. In 2002/2003, for example, there were 80 homicides involving a firearm – but 160 people were murdered through ‘Hitting, kicking, etc’. Blunt objects were used in 47 murders that year, and there were 68 murders by strangulation, involving hands, ropes, scarves and other such items. Why do we not talk about a ‘feet and fists culture’, or a ‘blunt objects culture’, or a ‘rope culture’? Why do some describe murder as a ‘culture’ when it involves guns, but recognise and describe it as random, isolated violence when someone has been kicked or punched to death? (6)

It’s worth looking at the breakdown of the Home Office figure of 21,521 crimes involving firearms in England and Wales in 2005/2006. This figure has been repeated across the media over the past week-and-a-half of ‘gun terror’/‘war zone’ hysteria, often with the impression that all 20,000-plus incidents were part of violent street clashes between drug gangs and hoodlums. The truth, it seems, is a little different.

Nearly half of these crimes (10,437 of them, or 48 per cent) involved the use of air weapons – that is, pneumatic guns that fire projectiles, normally very small pellets, using compressed air as a propellant. Such guns are fairly widespread across the UK, and have traditionally been popular among bored teens who take a fancy for shooting dogs or rats or squirrels. The guns are usually harmless. I was twice shot with an air gun when I was a child, and needed little more than a band-aid and an admonishment from my dad to ‘grow up and stop blubbing’ to get over it. A friend of mine once shot our science teacher with his air rifle and received only a Saturday morning detention as punishment. The relative harmlessness of air weapons is shown in the fact that their use tends mostly to cause criminal damage: in 2005/2006, 88 per cent of air-gun firings resulted in criminal damage; 11 per cent in slight injury; and only 1 per cent in serious injury (7).

Yet now, with the inclusion of some 10,000 air rifle acts in overall ‘crimes involving firearms’, it seems that these sorts of minor incidents are being lumped alongside the far more serious use of shotguns by drug dealers or handguns by hitmen.

Real firearm crimes

Excluding air weapons, there were 11,084 recorded crimes involving actual firearms in 2005/2006. This represents just 0.2 per cent of all crimes in 2005/2006; put another way, firearms were used in around one in every 500 crimes (8).

Not all of these 11,084 crimes involved real guns, either. Thirty per cent of the crimes involved the use of an imitation firearm that fires blanks or pellets which are mostly harmless; 12 per cent involved the use of an ‘unidentified firearm’, which includes the use of ‘supposed firearms’ – that is, objects that were concealed by their users (for example, under their coat or jacket) and which are presumed by the victim or the police to have been a firearm (9). Thus, a fairly high number of these 11,084 firearm crimes will have involved imitation firearms or possibly no firearm at all.

Other guns used in these 11,084 crimes include mostly handguns (42 per cent), and also long-barrelled shotguns (3 per cent), sawn-off shotguns (2 per cent), and ‘other firearms’ (10 per cent). Handguns were used in 4,671 crimes in 2005/2006; shotguns were used in 642 crimes. Yet being ‘used’ in a crime does not mean they were fired. Firearm crimes include incidents where guns were used as a threat or as blunt instruments with which to hit people – which, of course, are also terrifying experiences for the victims. Out of the 4,671 crimes involving handguns, the weapons were fired only 14 per cent of the time and not fired 86 per cent of the time. Out of all handgun incidents, 44 per cent resulted in no injury, 24 per cent in slight injury, and 32 per cent in serious or fatal injury. In the 642 crimes in 2005/2006 involving shotguns, they were fired 41 per cent of the time and not fired 59 per cent of the time. Of all shotgun incidents, 57 per cent resulted in no injury, 12 per cent in slight injury and 31 per cent in serious or fatal injury (10).

So for all the headline claims of 20,000-plus gun crime incidents a year, we should note that half of these involve air guns (including the kind of incidents that even you, dear reader, might have got up to in your youth); and only in a minority of real firearm incidents is a gun actually fired. Out of 21,521 crimes involving firearms in 2005/2006, injury was caused in 5,001 incidents, and for the most part it was slight injury: firearm-use resulted in just 595 serious injuries and 50 fatalities in 2005/2006. In other words, less than three per cent of firearm incidents resulted in serious or fatal injury (11).

Given that firearm crimes made up just 0.2 per cent of all recorded crimes in 2005/2006, and that just three per cent of these firearm crimes resulted in serious or fatal injuries, it is clear that there is no ‘gun crime epidemic’ and that Britain is nowhere close to being a ‘war zone’. For all the claims of a reckless gun culture, a cavalier gang attitude on the streets of London and Manchester, it seems that when guns are used, it is mainly for bravado purposes, as a threat, rather than as instruments with which to kill people.

As for comparisons between Britain and other violent nations, with one commentator going so far as to compare Noughties London to the Eighties Bronx in New York…in fact there are fewer gun killings in Britain than in many other developed nations, including Sweden. In America there is an average gun-killing rate of 3.97 per 100,000 of the population; in Canada it is 0.59; in Switzerland it is 0.51; in Sweden it is 0.37; in England and Wales it is 0.14 (12).

Fear and ‘gun culture’

Over the past 25 years there has been a rise in gun ownership and gun use in the UK, and also in gun crime in general. Yet the number of homicides involving firearms has remained fairly static and gun crime is still extremely rare. As the Home Office itself says, ‘Gun crime remains a relatively rare event…. Injury caused during a firearm offence is also rare.’ (13) So what lies behind the ongoing gun crime panic, triggered by a spate of shootings over the past two weeks? It is not a rational response to a real crime problem; rather, various officials and opinion-formers are projecting their own fear and angst on to the debate about guns.

First, the gun crime panic seems to be motivated by a powerful sense of society spinning out of control, by a belief that poor inner-city areas pose a threat to the fabric of British life and liberty. A headline in The Times (London) declared: ‘Gun crime moving to shires as drug gangs are forced out of cities, says police chief.’ (14) This captures well a sense of fear and loathing within middle-class sections of society, who seem to view certain parts of London and Manchester not only as rundown hellholes overrun by gun crime, but also as a kind of contagion whose violence and instability might spread beyond their local boundaries into better-off areas like the shires. One reason why Peckham, where one of the recent shootings took place, seems to have been singled out as a ‘problem area’ in the gun crime debate is because it borders gentrified and posh suburbs such as East Dulwich.

Some are cutting-and-pasting their own feelings of insecurity on to inner-city areas, creating a largely imaginary spectre of out-of-control gangs wielding sawn-off shotguns, as if parts of the capital and Manchester have transformed into wartime Sierra Leone.

Second, the gun crime panic seems driven by the already-existing fear of young people, and by elite uncertainty about what kind of values to instil into the next generation, and how to instil them. That is why isolated and unrelated shootings have given rise to a very public debate about everything from schooling to parenting to criminal laws that might punish and thus help to improve the young. For some politicians and commentators, it seems the killings are an extreme version of how they view all youth: as unpredictable, unwieldy, difficult to reach out to or inspire. Adult society’s indirection is projected on to rare acts of violence amongst groups of youths in suburbs in London and Manchester. This helps to explain the use of the term ‘gun culture’ – it’s as if our leaders feel they have lost young people to another ‘culture’, a different ‘way of life’ (15). Their own inability to articulate what British culture represents today, and why young people ought to sign up for it, leads to an obsessive concern with alternative ‘cultures’ that are apparently stealing our children away.

The recent killings show that the cocktail of poverty, boredom and drugs can still lead to tragic and horrific incidents. That will be news to no one. The response to the killings suggests that officialdom feels disconnected from young people, and believes it can only reach out to them by toughening up the laws against youth crime, sending in armed police, or employing social workers and teachers to offer young people ‘love’ and therapy where their own parents have allegedly failed to (16). Such confused interventions, which treat youth either as criminals or damaged goods, are likely to prove more damaging than the largely mythical ‘gun culture’.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his personal website here.

I thought Nottingham was the ‘gun crime capital’…
by Rob Lyons

Peckham in London is now being touted as the ‘gun crime capital’ of Britain. Not so long ago the East Midlands city of Nottingham had that dubious title. It came to a head with the killing of 14-year-old Nottingham schoolgirl Danielle Beccan in October 2004. By stringing together a mish-mash of gun homicides, journalists reported that there had been nine killings in two-and-a-half years and thus Nottingham was the centre of gun crime.

As the vice-chancellor of Nottingham University notes, even at the time of those ‘gun crime epidemic’ headlines three years ago, Nottingham was far from being exceptional. ‘The description as the UK’s most dangerous city does not describe the Nottingham that the vast majority of people who live and work here recognise. We are proud of our home and feel safe in it.’

Much the same could be said for Peckham today. The truth is that gun crime is still so rare that it makes national news. For the most part, it is largely a matter between criminals and it rarely impinges upon the lives of everyone else. Yet whenever isolated events provoke a great national debate about guns, lazy hack journalists will find somewhere to call a ‘war zone’ or ‘capital of crime’ and politicians will take advantage.

Rob Lyons used to live in Nottingham, and now lives in Peckham.

(1) See Crime in England and Wales 2005/2006, Home Office, July 2006

(2) See Crime in England and Wales 2005/2006, Home Office, July 2006

(3) Homicides, Firearm Offences and Intimate Violence 2005/2006, Home Office, January 2007

(4) Violent Crime Overview, Homicide and Gun Crime 2004/2005, Home Office, January 2006

(5) Homicides, Firearm Offences and Intimate Violence 2005/2006, Home Office, January 2007

(6) See Knife culture? Cut the crap, by Brendan O’Neill

(7) Homicides, Firearm Offences and Intimate Violence 2005/2006, Home Office, January 2007

(8) Homicides, Firearm Offences and Intimate Violence 2005/2006, Home Office, January 2007

(9) Homicides, Firearm Offences and Intimate Violence 2005/2006, Home Office, January 2007

(10) Homicides, Firearm Offences and Intimate Violence 2005/2006, Home Office, January 2007

(11) Homicides, Firearm Offences and Intimate Violence 2005/2006, Home Office, January 2007

(12) Blair wants gun crime age reduced, BBC News, 18 February 2007

(13) Homicides, Firearm Offences and Intimate Violence 2005/2006, Home Office, January 2007

(14) ‘Gun crime moving to shires as drug gangs are forced out of cities, says police chief’, The Times (London), 19 February 2007

(15) British fear rise of ‘gun culture’, USA Today, 8 June 2001

(16) See Peckham: a suburb apart?, by Rob Lyons

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Topics Politics


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