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Gun violence in Britain

Par Emilia Wilton-Godberfforde : Lectrice d'anglais - ENS de Lyon
Publié par Clifford Armion le 05/03/2008

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The world is overflowing with guns - as many as one for every ten people. Although in Britain, we are four times more likely to be killed with a knife than a gun, the threat of violence through fire arms has taken central stage in the media.

The world is overflowing with guns - as many as one for every ten people. Although in Britain, we are four times more likely to be killed with a knife than a gun, the threat of violence through fire arms has taken central stage in the media. The term gun violence encompasses intentional crime characterized as homicide and assault with a deadly weapon, as well as unintentional injury and death resulting from the misuse of firearms. A series of violent shootings in Britain, France, Germany and Switzerland have punctured the myth that Europe is gun-free. Internationally Britain has a low death rate from guns, France and Finland, for instance, have a much higher percentage. The overall level of gun crime in the UK accounts for less than 0.5% of all crime recorded by the police. However, the number of overall offences involving firearms has been increasing each year since 1997/98. Also alarming is the rise in the number of young people carrying real or imitation firearms. Gun crime in the United Kingdom is perceived as an ever increasing threat. (see Crime info website)

1. Media Coverage

Several acts of brutality have made the headlines in the course of 2007. In August the nation reacted strongly to the news that Rhys Jones, an eleven year old, was shot dead as he played football in Croxteth, Liverpool (BBC News 23rd August 2007). Earlier, in April, a 22 year-old pregnant woman, Krystal Hart was found shot in her flat in London (The Daily Telegragh, 7th April 2007). In July, a 16 year-old, Abukar Mohammed was shot dead after being chased through a South London estate by a gang of youths. (Times Online 27th July 2007). Nonetheless, it is important not to sensationalize and overplay the phenomenon of gun crime and carefully analyze the statistics. A number of gruesome crimes does not necessarily mean, as the Daily Mirror, claims that the country is witnessing a national "epidemic" (Mirror.co.uk 3rd September 2007). Home Office statistics show that there were 59 firearms-related homicides in 2006-07. (BBC News, 31st January 2008).This represents an 18% increase from the previous year. However, the overall level of gun crime is falling. Firearms offences in total fell 14% in 2006-07 to 9,650 cases. How has Britain reacted in the past and what does it envisage for its future?

2. Legislation

It has been twenty years since the infamous Hungerford massacre where a 27 year old Michael Ryan, went on a mass killing spree through the city. In response to this attack, the Conservative government passed the Firearms (Amendment) Act 1988. This confined semiautomatic and pump-action centrefire rifles, military weapons firing explosive ammunition and, short shotguns that had magazines to the prohibited category. It also made pump-action and self-loading rifles illegal. It has been ten years since The Firearms (Amendment) (No.2) Act which resulted in the prohibition of the vast majority of handguns in Great Britain. These laws came into force as a reaction to the 1996 Dunblane massacre where Thomas Hamilton killed sixteen young children and their teacher in Dunblane Primary School's gymnasium with his licensed weapons and ammunition before shooting himself. It is now an offence to hide or carry a weapon, with a maximum sentence of four years for knives and ten years for firearms, and the range of offences for which an offender can be given a mandatory minimum five-year sentence has been extended. 

Consequently, Britain now has some of the strictest legislation in the world on this issue. Gavin Hales, a criminologist who has carried out research into gun crime for the Home Office and the Metropolitan Police, reiterates this point and believes "legislation has just about gone as far as it can and as far as it needs to go" (BBC News, 14th November 2007). He believes the focus of attention needs to be on the social and economic issues underpinning these problems.

Since the ban on handguns in 1997 in Britain, many police and criminologists believe it is more and more difficult for criminals to get hold of guns. Indeed, it is thought that most of handguns that were legally held before Dunblane are believed to have been handed in during a series of amnesties. A five-year mandatory minimum term for possessing an illegal firearm came into force in 2004 and in May 2007 it was extended to include 18-to 20-year-olds. The European Directive 477 will introduce a series of further controls on the sale of guns. The German MEP responsible for the drive for the directive, Gisela Kallenbach said: "You can never 100% stop people illegally obtaining guns no matter what legislation you have, but with the legislation you can at least make it as difficult as possible" (BBC News, 12th November 2007). With this new directive, individuals wishing to buy imitation or blank-firing guns will have to prove their identity to the retailer or manufacturer and buyers will be obliged to provide and ID card or a passport.

3. Attempts to understand and tackle the phenomenon

But, as it stands, guns are still available for those who seek them out. Shotguns can be bought for £50 to £200. An imitation firearm can cost as little as £20 and guns can even be hired by the hour or for an evening. In an article for The Times, on 25th August 2007, Richard Ford explains, that "[s]ome [guns] come from recent conflict zones, including Northern Ireland and the Balkans. Others are coming from East European states that joined the European Union in 2004. There are suggestions that battlefield trophies are brought in by soldiers and that firearms may be imported with illegal drugs or through the post."

We also know that gun crime is starting at an earlier age than ever recorded. This includes victims as well as offenders. The average age of the victims in the 10 murders of 1997 was 29 and the youngest was aged 19. Ten years later, in June and July 2007 the average age of the five victims has fallen to 25 and if the 47-year-old boxer James Oyebola is excluded, the figure drops to 20. In the last four years, the proportion of victims who were teenagers had risen from 19% to 31%. (BBC News, 13th November 2007). Gus John, a professor of education at Strathclyde University who studies gun crime, particularly in the Afro-Caribbean community, believes it is important to underline the fact that young people are drawn into gang culture not so much because of low self-esteem or lack of employment opportunities, but rather because it brings its own excitement and temporary material gain. (BBC News, 14th november 2007). Gangs and guns seem to have an unmistakable allure.

Research on gun crime carried out for the Home Office suggests that illegal drugs markets represent the single most important theme in relation to the use of illegal firearms. Less officially, racism, rap and a lack of positive role models have all been blamed for the recent series of gun deaths. The Tory leader, David Cameron has blamed such violence on the lack of family values and our broken society, saying: "This goes beyond any one policy or any one government. I think what we need is to recognise our society is badly broken and we need to make some big changes, starting now" (Guardian Unlimited, 16th February 2007). A few months later (4th July), Cameron was quoted in The Guardian calling the music industry to "show leadership" by banning violent lyrics from songs: "I am not calling for censorship, legislation or the banning of content. I am calling on you [the music industry] to show leadership, exercise your power responsibly and to use your judgement. I know music plays a small part in all this. But I also know, unless we all fulfil our responsibilities, however small, we cannot hope to confront the challenge of our broken society." The finger has also been pointed at gory video games and violent Hollywood movies. The heroes of TerminatorMission: Impossible and the Die Hard films, just to name a few major block-busters, all succeed with their explosive weaponry. It is certainly true that gang culture has been glamorized within the entertainment industry. Role models are misogynistic aggressive rappers, pulp-fictionesque hitmen and nihilistic Marilyn Mansons. The incitement to dominate, abuse and violate is deeply imbedded in the lyrics of many hip-hop songs. Snoop Dogg in "Tha Eastsidaz - Another Day" sings: "How much dirt have I done/My life has just begun/ I sleep with my gun/ My problems weigh a ton.../Live by the gun die by the gun." "Big Pun - Brave In The Heart" from Endangered speciesincludes the lyrics:

I'm from where the guns love to introduce theyself
Reduce your health, little bulletproofs get felt
Make way for kill, I don't play I spray for real
Blow your top with the glock, that's my favourite kill
Blaze your crib with like thirty shots
I'm already hot, but my last one is with some dirty cops
Blow a hole through your ribs just for runnin your lips
The street's a trip; either you deep or you sleep with the fish

Being "trigger happy" is seen as smooth and the ultimate emblem of being cool. A poster of rapper 50 Cent holding a gun and a baby was fiercely criticized but the truth is that the public salivates over the dangerous and the provocative. We are hungry for images that shock, we feast on the obscene. We have become immune to many alarming images and so the search for the ever more atrocious feeds the media. Witness the success of such "torture porn" films as Saw and all its sequels. It is easy to blame influences from across the Atlantic. America is often cited as being a Satanic-like influence whose values are seeping into Europe. America, that prides itself on the "right to bear arms" enshrined by the Second Amendment, has an extremely high level of gun crime. The infamous attacks such as the Colombine highschool massacre (http://news.bbc.co.uk/onthisday/hi/dates/stories/april/20/newsid_24890...) and more recently the Virginia Tech shooting cannot easily be forgotten it (http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/us_and_americas/article...). It is easy to demonise the "other" and fall into the trap of thinking that as long as we are not as corrupted as "them" we are not in any real danger. America may have a disturbingly high level of such crime, but even if its gang culture and glamorisation of vice is partly responsible for the increasing phenomenon of violence in this country, we should remember that hatred, anger and its enactment is truly bred from within.

Although gun-related violence has hit the headlines recently, a BBC News journalist is keen to point out that "the most common weapon used in a violent crime in England and Wales is not a gun - but a knife. There are four times more knife-related killings as firearms-related killings." (Dominic Casciani, "Analysis: UK gun crime figures", 31st January 2008).A spate of stabbings in 2006 prompted Giles Hattersley, journalist for The Times, to seek to find out why so many people felt obliged to carry knives ("Blade culture has us all in its thrall", 4th June 2006). It seems it started with gangs turning to knives after the authorities cracked down on guns. As this "knife epidemic" spread out of city rough spots, non-gang members started carrying knives, too, as protection, or merely to look cool. "For a particular type of teen", Hattersley  writes, "knives retain the same fetish-like appeal that they always have. Recent films such as Kill Bill and Blade Trinity have done much to glamorise knife fighting. [...] Boys are no longer the whole story, however. While victims and perpetrators of knife crime are still overwhelmingly male, Irwin [head of Offroad Productionz, a mentoring group that tackles gang and violent crime] has identified a nasty new breed of female knife carrier. "I'm shocked by the number of girls carrying them," she says. "We are seeing older girls bullying younger girls for their mobiles, pulling out knives and slashing their jackets and even holding blades up to their throats. They're every bit as vicious as the boys." "

Experts are divided on the best course of action to reduce such crime. Some campaigners, such as Gill Marshall-Andrews of Gun Control Network, (http://www.gun-control-network.org) have called for even tougher legislation, such as banning airsoft weapons. Others say, this is misguided and that there should be more focus on the social problems that lead to such destruction. The government has set up the Connected programme (http://www.connected.gov.uk/) to support local community groups in their fight against gun violence. It promises to be committed to tackling gun culture head on and has pledged a range of measures including working to block imports of firearms, stepping up surveillance of gangs and using civil orders against gang members. The same old story. The same suggested approaches....


Pour citer cette ressource :

Emilia Wilton-Godberfforde, "Gun violence in Britain", La Clé des Langues [en ligne], Lyon, ENS de LYON/DGESCO (ISSN 2107-7029), mars 2008. Consulté le 18/05/2024. URL: https://cle.ens-lyon.fr/anglais/civilisation/domaine-britannique/gun-violence-in-britain