Banning guns in Britain finds widespread support

August 22, 1996|By Richard Reeves

LONDON -- A man named Richard Humphrey, a mugger by trade, was sentenced to four life sentences this month for murder and attempted murder during a four-month shooting spree last year. He killed a woman and wounded three other people with a small handgun, a .22-caliber semi-automatic pistol he purchased by mail.

It is more difficult to get a handgun in Britain than it is in the United States -- a police license is required here -- and the focus in the Humphrey case is not about the criminal or the crime, but about how Humphrey got the gun.

This is how he got around Britain's strict gun control and regulation laws:

Humphrey placed a classified advertisement in a magazine called Gun Mart, offering to sell weapons he did not have. When the first potential buyer responded, Humphrey asked the man for a copy of his license before completing the "sale." Then, using the man's name, he mailed the copy of the license and $350 to buy the .22-caliber and a .357-caliber Magnum revolver from a dealer advertising in Gun Mart.

The country's gun control system, which goes back to 1824 when some veterans of the Napoleonic Wars kept their weapons and became outlaws and highwaymen, came within 20 minutes of working perfectly in the Humphrey case.

The dealer notified the police and they discovered that there had been earlier dealer reports of someone at Humphrey's London address trying to obtain weapons without a license. Officers were dispatched, but arrived at Humphrey's flat 20 minutes after the man left, never to return. The officers found only the empty boxes for the guns and ammunition.

This is all big news now because Great Britain, with 409,000 legally held handguns and 1.2 million legal shotguns, is debating moving from gun control to a national ban on all handguns.

A complex national dialogue began after the killing of a teacher and 16 kindergarten students in Dunblaine, Scotland, March 13. The killer, Thomas Hamilton, used his own guns, all licensed, all legal. The British trauma seems deeper than anything Americans have experienced.

Hunting weapons

The British ban on handguns -- as opposed to hunting weapons in a country that loves hunting -- was proposed immediately by the opposition Labor Party. But Conservatives right up to Prime Minister John Major signed on, too.

In fact, Mr. Major and Labor leader Tony Blair went to Dunblaine together, a rare symbol of national unity above partisanship. As time and memory moved on, a parliamentary committee report backed stricter licensing procedures, but no ban.

The most effective gun ban symbol right now is a newspaper advertisement and poster, a photograph of Emma Crozier, a 5-year-old who is one of the Dunblaine victims, over this copy:

"No more picnics, no more days at the beach, no more butterflies, no more chockie cake, no more bedtime stories, no more teddy bears, no more kisses good night . . . NO MORE GUNS."

But the gun lobby here is not in the same league as America's National Rifle Association. The reasons are obvious: Britain does not have a large handgun manufacturing industry, and the rigidly ideological British party system functions without the neo-bribery of the United States' system. Most of the anti-ban activities involve a 10-year-old group called the Shooting Rights Association, headed by a 27-year-old London gunsmith named Guy Savage.

The SRA's major thrust has been to threaten to sue the Central Scotland Police District, which licensed Hamilton to own guns, for lost revenues to gun dealers because of a 50 percent drop in gun sales since Dunblaine.

The fact that the British stopped buying, rather than stockpiling ammunition as Americans might in a similar situation, is one indication that they see blood in the streets as a societal problem rather than a constitutional right.

Ban is certain

There is almost certainly going to be some sort of British ban. Comparisons attacking the gun culture of the United States are commonly published, including the fact that there are more than 150 times as many handgun killings in America than in Britain. Even the few Conservatives opposing any kind of total handgun ban have conceded:

"None of the commentators (witnesses at hearings) have seriously challenged the broad consensus drawn that there is a correlation between international levels of gun ownership and gun homicide and that gun ownership probably increases overall homicide rates. . ."

That conclusion is nothing new, of course. American gun laws and attitudes are considered insane or suicidal in other parts of the world with high literacy rates.

However the British dialogue ends, it will produce civilized legislation and controls that will again show up the American blindness to the dangers of an armed society, the single greatest stupidity of law-abiding America.

Richard Reeves writes a syndicated column.

Pub Date: 8/22/96

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