It was widely reported earlier this month that London experienced a higher number of murders over the first three months of 2018 than did New York City—the first time in modern history that has occurred.
The United Kingdom has some of the most restrictive gun control laws in the world, so the increased murder rate in the British capital is largely a result of a sharp rise in knife-related crime.
The surge in violence prompted London Mayor Sadiq Khan to announce a massive “knife control” campaign eerily reminiscent of those sometimes proffered in the United States in response to firearms-related violence.
The knife control measures will include the deployment of 300 additional London police officers to conduct “stop and frisk” searches of individuals suspected of knife-carrying, a policing tactic once roundly condemned by Khan.
Emergency legislation also appears set to prohibit knives purchased online from being sent to residential addresses. The U.K. already criminalizes the purchase or possession of various types of knives, and the carrying of any knife with a blade longer than 3 inches in public is illegal unless it is carried “with good reason.” Self-defense is not considered a good reason.
This crackdown on knives, and the surrounding rhetoric demonizing those who would carry them in public, should serve as a warning to Americans disconcerted by the vocal anti-Second Amendment activists in our own country. They will not be satisfied by merely taking away your scary “assault weapons.”
A History of Civilian Disarmament in the UK
In theory, the 1689 English Bill of Rights protects the right of individual British subjects to possess arms for purposes of self-defense. In reality, modern Britons have had this right completely stripped from them, to the point where they may be reprimanded for using kitchen knives against home intruders.
Under the 1920 Firearms Act, would-be handgun and rifle owners in the U.K. must obtain a certificate from the local chief of police upon showing that he or she has “good cause” to possess a firearm and is not “unfitted.”
This measure was enacted over fears of communist and anarchist insurgencies, and it had very little to do with concerns over gun-related crime, which was nearly nonexistent in England at the time.
In 1936, Parliament passed laws heavily regulating (and de facto prohibiting) the civilian possession of short-barreled shotguns and fully automatic firearms. The laws also required the “safe storage” of lawfully owned firearms.
Between 1964 and 1969, the Home Office instructions to local police increasingly narrowed the definition of “good cause.”
In 1964, officers were informed that “it should hardly ever be necessary for anyone to possess a firearm for the protection of his house or person” and that “this principle should hold good even in the case of banks and firms who desire to protect valuables or large quantities of money.”
By 1969, the instructions effectively removed self-defense from the definition of good cause, with the Home Office stating that “it should never be necessary for anyone to possess a firearm for the protection of his house or person.”
The purchase and possession of shotguns became heavily regulated in 1988, requiring registration and a showing of costly security arrangements for “safe storage.”
On the heels of a tragic mass shooting in Dunblane, Scotland, in 1996, Parliament banned the civilian possession of semi-automatic firearms and handguns, requiring private citizens to turn in all but muzzle-loading guns, pistols of historic interest, and signal pistols.
Public pressure from the victims’ families led to a complete ban on semi-automatic weapons and handguns, even though only 9 percent of homicides in England at the time were committed with firearms, and only 14 percent of those gun-related homicides were committed with legally possessed firearms.
In the five years prior to the massacre, Scotland experienced only three homicides involving legal, licensed firearms—approximately 0.4 percent of all homicides during that time. Prior to Dunblane, the U.K. had not experienced a mass public shooting in almost a decade.
Current gun laws in the U.K. are so restrictive that Olympic shooting competitors required special permission to travel to the 2002 Commonwealth Games and the 2012 Olympic Games, because possession of necessary firearms for common shooting events was a criminal offense. English, Scottish, and Welsh pistol competitors are still required to train outside of the U.K.
Disarming Law-Abiding Citizens Didn’t Make the UK Safer
The U.K. has never had a serious problem with firearms-related crimes, but that’s not because it has strict gun laws. Further, disarming British citizens did not make the country safer—in fact, in some cases it made it much less safe.
First, it’s important to note that comparisons of homicide rates between the United States and the United Kingdom are difficult because since 1967, the U.K.’s official definition of homicide for crime reports has been relatively unconcerned with the actual number of dead bodies.
Instead, the country only counts as homicides those instances where a person is convicted of murder—meaning justifiable homicides and deaths where no suspect is caught or convicted are excluded.
This is much different than in the U.S., which includes all intentional killings, regardless of whether the killing was legally justified or whether any person was caught or convicted.
If the United States simply removed from its homicide counts those cases where no suspect was arrested—still a more inclusive standard than the one of conviction used by the U.K.—the nation’s overall homicide rate would fall to roughly half of where it currently stands.
The U.K. would still have a slightly lower overall homicide rate, but the gap would be significantly lessened.
Not only is the U.S. homicide rate unremarkable once reporting differences are accounted for, but the murder rate has dropped by 50 percent over the past three decades, despite a nearly identical percentage increase in the number of legally owned firearms in the country.
In other words, there is little statistical relationship between differences in the stringency of gun control laws and differences in homicide rates in the two countries. It can largely be attributed to different reporting standards and to other factors unrelated to firearms access.
That is, in large part, why a city with a de facto ban on firearms can find its homicide rate outpacing a city where firearms ownership is fairly regulated, but also fairly common.
That reality is further evidence by a second fact: Britons are not safer as a result of disarmament. Consider the following:
- Following the enactment of the 1997 handgun ban, violent crime rates rose sharply, and fell below their 1996 level only once in the next 15 years. By 2009, 12 years after the ban, England’s violent crime rate was the highest in the European Union and nearly five times that of the United States.
- England and Wales, which are categorized together by Eurostat (the official statistical database of the European Union), have the highest rape rate in the entire EU. In 2015, almost twice as many Britons were raped per 100,000 inhabitants than were Americans.
- Rates of theft in England and Wales are also higher than in the United States. In 2015, England and Wales experienced a theft rate of 2,000 thefts per 100,000 inhabitants (including motor vehicle theft).
- The rate of “hot burglaries”—where the residents are home during the burglary—is 14 percent in the United States. In the U.K., it is almost 60 percent, and research heavily indicates British burglars, who know that they are unlikely to confront an armed homeowner, specifically target occupied homes, so that homeowners can be forced to retrieve the most valuable objects in the house even if they are hidden.
Disarming Citizens Is Not Courageous, but Absurd
In England, an anti-knife charity called Only Cowards Carry dedicates itself to “weapons awareness” and places bins around cities for knife disposal, all of which feature the group’s name as a slogan.
With all due respect to CEO Caroline Shearer, who started the organization after her 17-year-old son was stabbed to death in 2012, this campaign should trouble any person who understands the natural right of self-defense, and the right to armed protection enshrined in the 1689 English Bill of Rights and the American Second Amendment.
Reason demands that true courage be defined by a person’s willingness to defend the life and liberty of himself and those around him.
Disarming law-abiding citizens demands, on the other hand, that courage be defined by a person’s trust in the police to imprison the correct suspect after the person is already dead.
That is not only absurd, but dangerous.
It is dangerous because it does not stop criminals, who will never voluntarily discard their weapons, from engaging in violent activity.
It is dangerous because it leaves law-abiding citizens defenseless against both crime and tyranny.
And it is dangerous because, as the mayor of London is now proving, disarmament never stops with the scary-looking guns—because the human capacity for evil does not stop with them either.
Amy Swearer is a visiting legal fellow at the Meese Center for Legal and Judicial Studies at The Heritage Foundation.
Editor's Note: This piece was originally published by The Daily Signal.