Targeting Guns

Britain has always been so tough on guns that even its police officers do not routinely carry firearms. But even its near-total ban handguns--a response to the 1996 school massacre in the Scottish town of Dunblane--has not been enough to prevent the country from seeing an alarming 35 percent rise in gun crime in the past year.

The issue came to a head when two teenage girls were killed in the crossfire of a gang-related shooting in the northern city of Birmingham earlier this month. Government officials promptly announced plans to clamp down still further on gun laws by instituting a five-year minimum sentence for the illegal possession of firearms. The government also plans to restrict sales of airguns and replica firearms.

NEWSWEEK's Emily Flynn spoke to Peter Squires, author of "Gun Culture or Gun Control" and a criminologist at the University of Brighton, about the latest shootings and fears that Britain could become as violent as the United States. Excerpts.

NEWSWEEK: The Birmingham shootings have raised fears that Britain could start seeing as many gun-related crimes as the United States. Has gun control spiraled into such a large issue here because of more general British fears that their country is becoming Americanized?

Peter Squires: It clearly is a fear on many people's parts that Britain is becoming more like the "Lawless West." In response to a given incident you will hear people saying things like "We're staring down the barrel of an American nightmare" or "If we embrace the American way of life, we'll get the American way of death."

Before, when an incident would happen [in Britain], people were shocked. Everyone, even those in the inner cities, was saying, "This is not the sort of thing you would expect here." We are hearing that comment less and less. Now [we hear] "You might expect it here." People are accepting the inevitability of an upwards creep in gun crime. That mindset is worrying because it almost admits defeat.

Has Britain been "defeated" yet?

No, and you can see that in our responses to gun crime. We've resisted arming the police. And we are culturally much more comfortable [than the United States] with the idea of paternalistic collectivism. The way in which we've gone so wholesale for CCTV [police closed-circuit TV cameras covering city streets] means we still don't mind losing a little liberty and privacy in order to feel more secure.

Do you think that the general perception of the quantity of gun violence in the U.K. exceeds the reality of the problem?

At the moment, I think that's definitely the case. We're into a panic about it.

Why has there been such a dramatic increase in the number of guns and gun crimes in Britain in recent years?

The spike coincided entirely with the opening up of the replica gun market [for collectors] in Britain. In the late '80s, we began to see replica guns [which are easily and cheaply converted into real working guns] being sold in army surplus and sports shops. Japanese Internet companies were also selling them.

But why did the replica market open?

Difficult to say. In the late '80s, Mel Gibson, Dirty Harry and [Quentin] Tarantino were in full force. I think this might have prompted some people to see shooting with a powerful sexy gun as something they wouldn't mind doing. Handgun shooting and the paintball craze both took off as urban sports in Britain. At the same time, the replica and airgun markets were coming together--everything started to look more like real firearms--which was appealing.

You mentioned films. Since the Birmingham shooting, government officials have been blaming rap music for the increase in gun crimes. Is this valid?

In no simple sense does either film or music cause gun violence. Everyone, offenders and nonoffenders alike, watch the same movies and listen to the same music. So, the question we need to ask ourselves is, "Why are some people in some situations influenced to act out violently?" Rap music is listened to by black and white kids--the fact that we don't see a less racially segregated committing of gun crime indicates that it's not the music itself. You'll find that it's the most detached and excluded young people, the majority of whom come from black communities, that are the most involved--people that don't otherwise have access to much.

Much of the latest spate of gun crimes--including the Birmingham shootings--has taken place in predominantly black neighborhoods. Has social exclusion contributed to this increase?

In a way. [A] lack of other opportunities has led to the development of localized drug economies. And I think it is this drug economy that is driving, financing and even necessitating gun ownership for those involved in it. Turf protection, market protection, supply maintenance and commanding respect all require guns.

To keep gun crime in Britain low, what should we be focusing on now?

We have to do more to prevent the influx of weapons by targeting firearms traffickers. This will become particularly important with the imminent expansion of the [European Union]. There also has to be a much more community-consistent way of approaching crimes when they do occur. Right now, people don't trust the police enough to pass on information--that's a social exclusion and racism issue. If British policing is going to work, those hardest to reach communities have got to be reached. Right now, the police are like an occupying force in the areas where the crime is highest and estates are most routinely victimized. The police aren't supporting the community, they're being confrontational. We need to deliver the necessary support in a way that's constructive, not by some gung-ho fire brigade.