Autopsy of a gun ban

19 July, 2016 – Over the last few months there has been various crowing in the media about the gun bans imposed after the shootings in Dunblane and Port Arthur, as twenty years have now passed since those horrific events.  Almost universally in the mainstream press, these measures have been lauded as a success achieved through near universal consensus.  Really?

What happened back then

For those of you who can’t remember the details, back in March of 1996, an unstable individual by the name of Thomas Hamilton went into a primary school in Dunblane and shot dead 17 children and their teacher, as well as injuring 15 more.  He was armed with four handguns that he legally possessed at the time.  He was known to the police as a dubious individual due to his interactions with children, and in fact a Detective Sergeant with Central Scotland Police had recommended in writing that his firearm certificate be revoked.

There followed the Dunblane Public Inquiry, chaired by Lord Cullen.  He made various recommendations, some of which were implemented, some were ignored and most relevantly, his recommendations in relation to handgun ownership were glossed over and the whole subject became a political football.

Cullen recommended that handguns be subject to further restrictions, namely that an essential component such as the slide or cylinder be kept locked up at an approved gun club.  If that wasn’t practical, he recommended they be banned, but that gun clubs be allowed to still have a small number of guns for the use of their members.  He did not consider single-shot pistols to be as big of a threat and that they should remain legal.

Unfortunately, this didn’t square with the political reality.  In a country which has had a strong anti-gun sentiment for decades, only a complete ban would do.  The fact that a carefully considered public inquiry had come to the conclusion it was unnecessary was ignored.  Over the summer of 1996 (prior to the conclusion of the public inquiry) it became clear through leaks to the press that the Home Secretary (in the shape of Michael Howard) was considering a law that would require all handguns be kept locked up at gun clubs.  This idea directly contradicted testimony to the Cullen inquiry that this would create a huge security risk.  However after Cullen’s recommendations came out, the Home Office dismissed the idea of storing components at clubs on the flimsy basis of a short memo from the Forensic Science Service that components might be replaced with components sourced from deactivated handguns.  This was plainly nonsense as the deactivation procedure requires the main components of the firearm to be severely damaged.

Michael Forsyth, the then Secretary of State for Scotland then intervened, warning that the Tories would be wiped out in Scotland at the upcoming General Election unless a complete ban was imposed.  Even more pressure came to bear as Tony Blair promised at the 1996 Labour Party conference to impose a complete ban if Labour came to power.  The only major contradictory political voice was the Home Affairs Committee which released a report saying in essence that banning handguns would not stop further mass shootings as other types of firearm would still be available.

Thus under pressure, the Tories then botched their own compromise measure and announced the Firearms (Amendment) Bill, which would ban all handguns, save for .22s kept at secure gun clubs (which didn’t exist).  This then gave Labour the ability to one up them by promising a total ban.  Lord Cullen’s recommendations were consigned to the dustbin.  The Government claimed they had accepted his recommendation for further restrictions, but in reality the bill had been thought up before his recommendations were even known and deviated significantly from them.

Labour won the election.  The Tories were wiped out in Scotland anyway (and still haven’t held a meaningful number of seats in Scotland since then).  The new government amended the new Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 with a new Act that removed the exemption for .22s kept at gun clubs, this second law came into force in November 1997.

The implementation of the ban

The prohibition in the original Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 came into force on July 1st, 1997, this was followed by a three-month surrender period ending on September 30th. (Home Office memo.)  As there was a bill in Parliament to ban .22s as well which was certain to pass, the Govt. tacked on a voluntary ex-gratia scheme for owners of .22 handguns as well.  Those owners of .22s who didn’t turn them in at that time, subsequently had to turn them in during a one-month surrender period during February 1998.

Chaos reigned at the Home Office and among the various police forces tasked with receiving the prohibited items.  In order to encourage compliance with the prohibition and also to comply with Protocol 1, Article 1 of the European Convention on Human Rights, the Government decided that all ancillary equipment such as holsters, reloading equipment, ammunition etc. would be compensated for as well as the guns themselves.  This created a huge problem for the police as destruction of such vast quantities of ammunition and components, such as primers, was well beyond anything they had done before.  The Firearms (Amendment) Act 1997 also included a prohibition of all ammunition with expanding bullets for no apparent reason, which exacerbated this problem.  (Pistol ammunition with expanding bullets had been banned in 1992, but there was a broad exemption for target shooters).

The Home Office issued standard claim forms which were distributed by the police, each claimant having three options – option A was a stupidly low flat rate of £150 per gun, option B required the claimant to list everything they were surrendering and use a claim code from a thick booklet of codes relating to every accessory imaginable (they thought), option C was for customised or individual items that had to be submitted with a valuation.

Cover of instructions for compensation scheme.

Cover of valuation booklet for option B.

Sample page of valuation booklet.

Different police forces operated the surrender period in different ways.  Most simply provided a list of police stations that would accept items and times that people could show up.  Others required an appointment.  A few directed certificate holders to show up at a specific time and date, which appeared to be outside what the law permitted. (Sample letter.)

As might be expected, some people were keen to surrender their items immediately so they could get their compensation as rapidly as possible and go out and buy a new rifle.  Other people decided to leave it to the last minute.  The police got nervous and started sending out reminder letters (sample letter).  Threats of prosecution were made.

Once the hand-in period was over, it became clear the Home Office compensation section was having serious issues.  They prioritised applications from dealers, then they dealt with the easier claims under options A and B – but option C proved a real challenge for them, arguments about unpaid compensation drifted on for years.  It took so long in fact that people began taking the Home Office to court to claim interest on the claimed amounts.  Eventually, after a small claim court ruling, the Home Office had to concede and interest was paid.

Statistics

The police reckoned from the outset that there were 200,490 handguns (or authorisations to acquire one) held on firearm certificate in Great Britain by approximately 57,000 people (note the prohibition did not extend to Northern Ireland).  It was never entirely clear how many were held by dealers.  Of those, 162,353 were surrendered to the police.  55,000 people submitted 72,300 claims for compensation.  60,500 claims were made under the initial ban and a further 11,800 claims related to the later ban.  The total cost of the ban was £87 million in compensation and a further £8 million in administrative costs.  In 2016 amounts, that would be around £156 million total.

Unfortunately the National Audit Office report predates everything going on the web, but the Public Affairs Committee report is available.

Around 10,000 owners were able to keep some or all of their handguns under one of the exemptions to the ban (the main ones being slaughtering instruments, humane killers such as vets and handguns of “historic importance”).  In addition, 12,000 handguns were found not to fit the definition in the bans, mainly muzzle-loading pistols and revolvers (approx. 8,000) and flare guns (approx. 2,500).  A few hundred were simply removed from certificate control as they qualified as antiques and could be kept as a curio or ornament (in the UK, antiques have to be held on certificate if you intend to shoot them).

The rest were either exported, de-activated or destroyed by their owners.  My own personal favourite was an individual in Essex who handed into the police a bag of filings, which had to be sent to the Forensic Science Service for analysis.  In the end the police had to search his house to determine he had the tools to grind up his handgun.

Did it work?

Well, by any reasonable measure, plainly not.  It didn’t stop mass shootings, as the Home Affairs Committee warned.  It didn’t stop people bent on mass shootings getting hold of handguns.  It wasn’t really intended as a general anti-crime measure (despite a silly comment from Alun Michael, then Minister of State, in Parliament) – GB has for many years had a relatively low armed crime rate when compared internationally.  However, handgun-related homicides rose after the ban, for several years.  They did eventually fall but it’s questionable whether the ban had anything to do with that, as violent crime levels generally fell in most developed countries around that time.

Lessons learnt

Well many lessons were learnt but probably not the ones you generally see bandied around in the press.  The main lesson is that knee-jerk legislation is not a good idea.  Public safety was not enhanced and the cost was significant: £156 million would have paid for a lot of police officers and built a few hospitals.  Dealers may have been compensated for their stock but not for the loss of business, so livelihoods were ruined.  Gun clubs received relatively little in the way of compensation other than for the guns and ammunition they possessed.  Many could not adapt and went under.  Shooters largely took up rifle shooting instead, centrefire rifles being significantly more powerful than handguns obviously.  Some went to handgun-like contraptions such as long-barrelled revolvers.  I call them: “handrifles”.

You may wonder how I came up with that term.  Well firstly, it’s used in Japan where people use cut-down air rifles to get around the limit on air pistol ownership (a quota of 500 exists).  Second, I had a conversation in early 1997 with a person at the Home Office Firearms Section about the legal status of the long-barrelled T/C Contenders which didn’t meet the definition of a: “small firearm” in the ban.  “Oh,” he said, “we would consider those to be rifles.”  To date the Home Office never have and gun club approval for rifles doesn’t cover handrifles, meaning gun clubs cannot possess them (though individual members can).

The point being that people going out and replacing their handguns with various other types of firearm which are equally if not more deadly is hardly likely to enhance public safety by any standard.

Another lesson I learnt was the incredible duplicity and hypocrisy of the anti-gun lobbyists.  No better example exists frankly than the handgun ban in GB, as they rarely mention it – the reason being that it obviously failed.  They usually go banging on about the: “Australian gun law” in 1996 (gun laws are made at the State and Territorial level in Australia, so there is no single unified law).

Well those laws didn’t clearly work either as I’ve pointed out before.  But this didn’t stop the publication in the Journal of the American Medical Association of an article attempting to show how wonderful it was.  Authored in part by a well-known anti-gun campaigner, Philip Alpers, hardly an objective researcher.  Strange, why no research into how effective the handgun ban in GB was?  Hmm.  (For the record, despite the glowing media reviews of this “research”, it is very flawed, for example, defining a “mass shooting” as a shooting incident in which there are four or more victims who are fatally shot, which conveniently rules out the mass shooting at Monash University.  And limiting the time frame to 2013 also rules out this mass shooting.)

Another lesson the press put forward is generally how America should follow this wonderful example.  I learn the opposite actually, which is that the laws passed in GB and Australia are of literally zero relevance to the USA.  Let me explain why – British-style gun laws were originally enacted after the First World War not as a public safety measure but as a government preservation measure as there was a great deal of concern about the labour movement becoming a Communist movement as had happened in Russia.  As a result of these harsh laws originally enacted in the 1920s, both the UK and Australia today each have about 3 million firearms in circulation, about 2 million of which are held legally.  Note that according to Proof House figures from the 1900s, it’s possible to estimate that handgun sales per capita in Britain at that point were roughly half to two-thirds of what they are today in the US.  (Yes, I was amazed too.)

Contrast this to the US, where according to Nielsen there are about 350 million television sets in the US.  Estimates of the number of firearms in circulation (for example, by ATF) are usually pegged at between 200 and 300 million, so in the same ballpark.  How many individuals possess firearms is hard to estimate, but household surveys have put the figure at 35% of households.  So, tens of millions of people for sure, far more than the populations of the UK or Australia.  Roughly speaking, you can figure out from ATF production statistics over the years that are at least 3 million AR-15s in circulation – yes, there are more firearms of one model, than there are firearms in Australia or the UK.  There are somewhere on the order of a thousand times as many people who own handguns in the US than there were in the UK before the ban.

Remember it’s unlikely that the gun laws enacted in the 1920s would be politically palatable if enacted today in places like Britain.  The modern generation inherited them; they didn’t come up with them (as an example, look at how much less restrictive shotgun licencing was when it was enacted in GB in 1967).  But imagine trying to register hundreds of millions of firearms, prohibiting large numbers of certain types of firearm and licencing tens of millions of people in this modern consumer age.

It’s not going to happen, not nationwide anyway.  People who think it is are either deluded or misinformed.  Even Canada had to give up on their registration scheme for long guns and there are only estimated to be 7 million firearms in circulation there.

Here endeth the lessons – well, except unfortunately, this may be an autopsy but the ban is still in place.  At least now everyone knows that Tony Blair was given to ill-considered decisions thanks to the Chilcot report.


“In response to the recent tragic shootings at Monash University, Australian government leaders agreed to develop a plan to significantly restrict access to handguns sought for target shooting. The heads of government requested that the APMC develop detailed proposals for a national approach to hand gun control measures. The APMC will meet on 5 November 2002, and it is likely that further national reform measures will be developed after that meeting.” – Andre Haermeyer MP, Minister for Police and Emergency Services, 31st October, 2002, in the Parliament of Victoria.  Making more proposals for gun laws, because you know, those laws in 1996 were so successful.