Fanning the Flames: The Freedom Project Blog


Gun Rights and Politics in the United Kingdom

By Riley Roberts
For firearm enthusiasts in America, Charlton Heston's "from my cold, dead hands" proposition has long been a fitting answer to proponents of gun control. For advocates of restricting the sale and use of guns, Heston's familiar quotation represents an ongoing struggle, and is the stuff of Michael Moore movies.

Across the pond, however, American "gun nuts" would find themselves strangers in a strange land. In the United Kingdom, there is no high-profile spokesman for the gun movement, and, in fact, there is barely any organized gun lobby whatsoever (there is a National Rifle Association, but it is a mere shadow of its powerful American cousin). In fact, firearm legislation in the UK is perhaps the toughest in the world, and it's supported by a philosophy founded on public safety rather than constitutional law.

Broadly speaking, the right to "keep and bear arms" is basically nonexistent in the UK. Private citizens are allowed to possess certain types of guns for purposes of sport and occupational necessity, provided they are licensed. Permits can be granted by the police for any number of guns, provided that the owner can provide valid reasons for owning each. "Self-defense" has not been considered a valid reason for gun ownership since 1946.

Applying for a gun permit is rigorous and exacting, and consequently many simply do not choose to own firearms. Apart from needing to provide justification for each gun one possesses, one must also prove that one is "fit" to safely own and use them. Anyone who has served a prison term lasting three years or longer - for any offense - is automatically prohibited from owning any kind of firearm for the rest of his/her life. Automatic weapons are completely illegal, as are certain types of shotguns and an assortment of other gun classifications.

All of these measures have been enacted sporadically over the last 90 years or so, in the name of public safety. Even police officers are not allowed to carry guns except on special assignment (we saw a number of bobbies with automatic weapons at the Houses of Parliament, Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle, and the Prime Minister's residence when we visited).

The result? Put quite simply, it seems to be working. Violent crime in the UK is considered to be extremely rare. In 2005/06, only 766 homicides were reported in England and Wales (including the 52 who died on the July 7 London Underground bombing). That's 1.7 homicides per 100,000 people. Of these 766 deaths, only 50 involved firearms.

In the United States, there were 14,860 homicides in 2005 alone (though one should bear in mind the relative size of the countries being examined). That's 5.5 murders per 100,000. Of these, 68% were reported as gun deaths. Many more gun-related injuries occur each year, however. In 2000, the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that there were 52,447 violence-related gun injuries and 23,237 accidental gunshot wounds (statistics not available for the UK).

While it is extremely difficult to quantify factors such as the pervasive "gun culture" that has existed for years in the U.S. and any similar (or opposing) sentiment among British subjects, these statistics seem to suggest some degree of correlation between gun ownership and gun violence. Obviously, a number of additional factors come into play, and there is nothing to suggest that similar restrictions would have a similar effect in the United States (nor am I trying to make such a case). Britain and America, while similar in many respects, also differ sharply in a number of areas, and what works in one country may or may not be viable in the other.

At the moment, however, the British may have found a formula that works for them (whatever the drawbacks). Meanwhile, in the United States, a healthy debate rages on, with the influential NRA taking one side and a vibrant anti-gun lobby in the other corner. Regardless of which side of the debate one identifies with, the British system is worth at least a passing glance - and even in the UK, it should be noted, some controversy remains. Grappling with the personal, societal and constitutional implications of any gun debate may not be easy - but it's what our democracy was designed to do.


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Managing Director

McCormick Freedom Project

Shawn is responsible for overseeing and managing the operations associated with the McCormick Freedom Project. Additionally, he serves as the in house content expert and voice of museum through public speaking and original scholarship. Before joining the Freedom Project, he taught American Government, Economics, American History, and Chicago History at Community High School in West Chicago, IL and Sheboygan North High School in Wisconsin.

Shawn is a doctoral candidate within the Political Science Department at the University of Illinois at Chicago where he received his MA in Political Science. He is a 2001 James Madison Fellow from the State of Wisconsin and holds a bachelor's degree in Political Science, History, and Secondary Education from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

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About Fanning the Flames and the McCormick Freedom Project

Fanning the Flames is a blog of the McCormick Freedom Project, which was started in 2006 by museum managing director Shawn Healy. The blog highlights the news of the day, in hopes of engaging readers in dialogue about freedom issues. Any views or opinions expressed on this blog represent those of the writers alone and do not represent an official opinion of the McCormick Freedom Project.

Founded in 2005, the McCormick Freedom Project is part of the McCormick Foundation. The Freedom Project’s mission is to enable informed and engaged participation in our democracy by demonstrating the relevance of the First Amendment and the role it plays in the ongoing struggle to define and defend freedom. The museum offers programs and resources for teachers, students, and the general public.

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The Freedom Project recently launched a new reporting initiative with professional journalists Tim McNulty and Jamie Loo. The goal is to expand and promote the benefits of lifelong civic engagement among citizens of all ages, through original reporting, commentary and news aggregation on First Amendment and freedom issues. Please visit the McCormick Freedom Project's news Web site, The Post-Exchange at