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The UK’s response to mass shootings offers insight into gun control debate in US

On Sunday night four Americans, including rising sports star Phil Dowdell, were killed and 28 more injured in a mass shooting at a teenager’s birthday party in Dadeville, Alabama. The perpetrator is still at large. Mr Dowdell was attending his sister’s 16th birthday party and was due to graduate from high school to attend Jacksonville State University on an American football scholarship.

Meanwhile, 780 miles away, protests have taken place in Kansas City, Missouri, after a white homeowner shot Ralph Yarl, a black teenager who rang their doorbell by mistake, while he was trying to pick up his brothers.

Yarl’s family lawyers are calling for the shooter to be charged, and police are investigating whether or not the suspect is protected by the state’s Stand-Your-Ground laws, which grant people permission to use deadly force if they feel seriously in danger.

What connects these two shootings is a now-worn debate surrounding gun crime and gun control in the United States. With over 160 mass shootings in the country this year alone, according to the Gun Violence Archive, the issue of gun control remains a fiercely divisive topic where both sides descend rapidly into furious disagreement.

But in the face of horror, it is sometimes of merit to examine the facts. In particular, how the UK government’s response to the Dunblane massacre in the United Kingdom in 1996 might offer valuable insights into the potential benefits of implementing stricter gun control measures as a means of preventing further tragedies involving children.

In March 1996, Thomas Hamilton walked into a primary school in Dunblane, Scotland, with four legally held handguns and killed 17 people, 16 of whom were children, and wounded 15 others.

The incident shocked the nation and led to a significant shift in the UK’s approach to gun control. Following the tragedy, public petitions calling for a ban on the private ownership of handguns gathered widespread support, and in response, two new Firearms Acts were passed, effectively making private ownership of handguns illegal in Britain.

Since the introduction of these stricter gun control measures, gun-related deaths in England and Wales have decreased dramatically. Gun homicides in England and Wales had risen from 26 in 1969, to 66 in 1994. In the year of Dunblane, gun deaths peaked at 84 across the United Kingdom.

Today, gun killings have dropped to almost a third of that. In England and Wales in 2021/22, the police recorded 28 gun killings. In the last decade, the highest number of gun murders was just 40. And, more importantly, on average under 5% of all murders were with guns.

It seems Dunblane’s gun controls worked. Yes, the UK does not have datasets over time recording how many people survive being shot. And, yes, lower mortality figures might just be modern medicine getting better at saving lives. And, of course, Derrick Bird’s murder of 12 people in 2010 with a .22 rifle and shotgun shows that no gun control outside of a total ban is ever going to stop gun deaths. However, it seems probable that Dunblane’s gun control has worked.

In 2012/13 there were just over 8,500 firearm offences in England and Wales. Knife crime was more than three times that. Of the gun offences, over a third were with airguns or imitation weapons. The biggest signifier of change, though, might be the role of handguns in crime since Dunblane. 

In England and Wales in 2021/2, only 21 per cent of all criminal use of guns involved handguns. They were actually fired in just 14 per cent of these cases – about 250 times. 

Compare this with the US. In 2021, handguns there accounted for about 90 per cent of all firearm homicides where the gun type was recorded. So, while it is true that no single solution can completely eradicate gun violence, the evidence from the UK’s response to the Dunblane massacre strongly supports the argument that stricter gun control measures are more effective in preventing mass shootings, particularly those involving children, than upholding gun rights.

These facts will probably fall on deaf ears in the United States, where the debate over gun control is often hindered by cultural and societal differences. The constitutional right to bear arms has led to a unique situation where, in the aftermath of mass shootings, gun laws are often loosened rather than tightened.

There researchers have identified a significant correlation between gun ownership rates and incidents of gun violence. A 2013 study led by Boston University, for example, revealed that for each one per cent increase in household gun ownership, the state firearm homicide rate rose by 0.9 per cent. Moreover, states with less stringent gun regulations tend to experience higher instances of gun-related homicides and suicides, as reported by a study from the gun control advocacy organization Everytown for Gun Safety.

Yet, despite this evidence, states like Alabama have notoriously lenient gun laws. In 2022, Alabama even enacted “permitless carry” by repealing a longstanding prohibition on carrying a concealed handgun in public without a permit subject to a background check. Furthermore, just this week the National Rifle Association’s (NRA) expressed concerns over a gun bill recently filed in the Alabama Legislature. That bill aimed to limit the right to carry weapons on school premises to Police and School Resource Officers. The NRA considered this is a violation of fundamental rights.Such an approach stands in stark contrast to the UK’s response to Dunblane, which prioritised public safety and the well-being of children by implementing stricter gun control measures. The case of Dunblane and its aftermath demonstrates that the most arguably effective way to protect children from gun violence is through the implementation of comprehensive gun control measures, not the preservation of gun rights.

As the United States continues to grapple with the devastating impact of mass shootings, it would be prudent for policymakers and citizens alike to seriously consider the lessons learned from the UK’s response to the Dunblane tragedy and prioritise the safety of children and communities over the unrestricted right to bear arms. Whether this will ever happen, though, is as likely as it is that devoted gun owners in the United States will listen to the evidence with open minds.