Published On: Fri, May 27th, 2022

The U.K. has a problem with radicalization, but not shootings. The difference lies in gun access.


Two more Columbine-obsessed teens were found guilty of planning for months to kill students at their school in North Yorkshire in 2018. Lawyers for Thomas Wylie and Alex Bolland, both then 15, argued they had no intention of carrying out the plan. The jury disagreed: Wylie was sentenced to 12 years in prison, and Bolland to 10 years.

Kieran Cleary, then 16, from Bradford in West Yorkshire, was sentenced to 5 years in 2019 for making a shrapnel-filled explosive that he planned to use to kill people; he also claimed he was going to carry out a school shooting.

Liam Lyburd, then 19, managed to acquire a gun through the dark web, using online marketplaces that aren’t accessible through regular internet browsers, and planned to use it to shoot students at a college in Newcastle, in northeast England, from which he had been expelled. In 2015 he was given a life sentence, of which he must serve at least eight years.

Britain’s terrorism incidents tend to involve either knives — such as the London Bridge attack of 2019 — or explosives, as in the London bombings of July 7, 2005, and the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017.

Policing experts are in no doubt that things would be different with more relaxed gun laws.

“We would definitely, definitely see more firearms used in serious crime,” said Peter Kirkham, a former detective chief inspector with the Met Police. “Amongst that, we would have some school shootings, I think it’s inevitable. But I don’t think it would be anything near the same per capita number as America.

Kirkham said incidents such as the July 7 London bombings, in which four suicide bombers each detonated an explosive device, killing a total of 52 people, could have been much worse had the terrorists had access to guns.

It’s not just about access to firearms, however.

Even if guns were more readily available, Kirkham added, “I don’t think we’d see the same national psychology, which is why I think other countries that have more available guns don’t suffer the same consequences on the same scale as in America.”

Image: Dunblane
Massacres like Dunblane largely exist as unique stains on nations that were galvanized into action. Jane Barlow / AP

To own a gun legally in the U.K., individuals must be assessed by their local police force. Applicants must complete a long list of checks and paperwork. Getting a license requires one or two referrals confirming good character; a lockable safe to store weapons, which is normally inspected by police; and a photo and a fee of about 80 pounds ($100). Applicants must reapply when the license expires in five years.

Police will only issue a license when convinced that the applicant “poses no danger to public safety or to the peace.” License holders can then buy weapons from specialist gun stores.  

According to the most recent figures for England and Wales, as of March 2021 there were 156,033 people certificated to hold firearms, defined in law as any weapon “from which a shot, bullet or other missile” can be discharged. Just under 1.4 million licenses were issued for shotguns.  

Automatic and semi-automatic weapons are banned completely.

Guns still change hands in the criminal underworld — but even that supply route has slowed down.

“When I researched gangs in Manchester in the mid-to-late 2000s, people were talking about getting a gun for 200 pounds,” (about $150), said Rob Ralphs, a criminologist at Manchester University.

“About five years ago this had risen to between 2,000 and 4,000 pounds ($3,170) — so there are less guns available in the U.K. than even 10 to 15 years ago.”

Would-be school shooters wanting to emulate Columbine or Sandy Hook can’t buy guns, nor are they likely to get them from a criminal gang.

“People talk about the dark web and cryptomarkets, but that’s not how people get guns here — it’s usually through organized crime groups, via eastern and central Europe,” Ralphs said.

“When you look at the kind of people who end up radicalized, they often tend to be marginalized loners, who tend not to be connected to organized crime.”

A key deterrent has been strong compulsory criminal sentences: Some firearms offenses come with a five-year minimum jail term, including for first-time offenders.

“Ten years ago, Manchester was known as ‘Gunchester,’ but it’s really plummeted. It’s been stable at about 30 firearm-related homicides a year in the last five years in the U.K..” Ralphs said. “That would be a good weekend in some U.S. states.”



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