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Guns: Let’s Learn from the UK

In response to:

Our Romance With Guns from the September 27, 2012 issue

To the Editors:

David Cole’s piece on gun control [“Our Romance With Guns,” NYR, September 27] contains an error. He says, “One solution would be to ban guns. The United Kingdom does that.” The United Kingdom does not ban guns. It bans pistols, but allows both shotguns and rifles. One strand in the gun control debate here is that after the ban on pistols in 1996–1997, the rates of crime involving pistols increased.

John Browning
London, United Kingdom

David Cole replies:

It is true that I overstated the case, and I am grateful for the correction. Nonetheless, the United Kingdom has radically more stringent limits on guns, and radically lower incidence of gun violence, than does the US. While the UK does not ban all guns, it does ban all handguns, automatics, and semiautomatics. Shotguns and long-barreled pistols, used for hunting, are not banned, but heavily regulated, and their ownership requires a license and registration.

To get a license for long-barreled pistols, applicants must proffer a “good reason” for owning one, such as hunting, target shooting, or pest control, but notably not self-defense; must have two references; and must be a member of a target-shooting club.

A license is required for each gun that a gunowner acquires, and there are strict limits on ammunition. Shotgun licenses also require individual interviews, certifications from a family doctor, disclosure of any past criminal offenses, and the like. So while the UK does not literally ban guns, it bans many, and makes even gun ownership for hunting very difficult. It also happens to have one of the lowest gun violence rates in the world.

And while it is true that gun violence increased marginally after gun laws were tightened in 1997, it has more recently dropped. More telling are the actual numbers. There were only thirty-nine gun-related deaths in the United Kingdom in 2009. In the US there were over nine thousand. In other words, the US has five times as many people as the UK, and more than 230 times the number of gun homicides. We might well learn something from the British experience.

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