Britain: From Bad to Worse | March 22, 2001
By Dave Kopel, Dr. Paul Gallant and Dr. Joanne Eisen

During the 19th century, and most of the 20th, Britain enjoyed a well-deserved reputation as an unusually safe and crime-free nation, compared to the United States or continental Europe. No longer.

To the great consternation of British authorities concerned about tourism revenue, a June CBS News report proclaimed Great Britain "one of the most violent urban societies in the Western world." Declared Dan Rather: "This summer, thousands of Americans will travel to Britain expecting a civilized island free from crime and ugliness ... [but now] the U.K. has a crime problem ... worse than ours."

Not surprisingly to many observers, the violent crime rate has risen dramatically and steadily since gun bans have been instituted. That's a trend seen wherever strict gun control laws have been implemented. And that's the part of the story British officials have tried to keep under wraps.

A headline in the London Daily Telegraph back on April 1, 1996, said it all: "Crime Figures a Sham, Say Police." The story noted that "pressure to convince the public that police were winning the fight against crime had resulted in a long list of ruses to 'massage' statistics," and "the recorded crime level bore no resemblance to the actual amount of crime being committed."

For example, where a series of homes were burgled, they were regularly recorded as one crime. If a burglar hit 15 or 20 flats, only one crime was added to the statistics.

More recently, a 2000 report from the Inspectorate of Constabulary charges Britain's 43 police departments with systemic under-classification of crime for example, by recording burglary as "vandalism." The report lays much of the blame on the police's desire to avoid the extra paperwork associated with more serious crimes.

Britain's justice officials have also kept crime totals down by being careful about what to count.

"American homicide rates are based on initial data, but British homicide rates are based on the final disposition." Suppose that three men kill a woman during an argument outside a bar. They are arrested for murder, but because of problems with identification (the main witness is dead), charges are eventually dropped. In American crime statistics, the event counts as a three-person homicide, but in British statistics it counts as nothing at all. "With such differences in reporting criteria, comparisons of U.S. homicide rates with British homicide rates is a sham," the report concludes.

Another "common practice," according to one retired Scotland Yard senior officer, is "falsifying clear-up rates by gaining false confessions from criminals already in prison." (Britain has far fewer protections against abusive police interrogations than does the United States.) As a result, thousands of crimes in Great Britain have been "solved" by bribing or coercing prisoners to confess to crimes they never committed.

Explaining away the disparity between crime reported by victims and the official figures became so difficult that, in April 1998, the British Home Office was forced to change its method of reporting crime, and a somewhat more accurate picture began to emerge. In January 2000, official street-crime rates in London were more than double the official rate from the year before.

So what's a British politician to do when elections coincide with an out-of-control crime wave? Calling for "reasonable" gun laws is no longer an option. Handguns have been confiscated and long guns are very tightly restricted. So anti-gun demagoguery, while still popular, can't carry the entire load.

Conversely, the government would not find it acceptable to allow its subjects to possess any type of gun (even a licensed, registered .22 rifle) for home protection. Defensive gun ownership is entirely illegal, and considered an insult to the government, because it implies that the government cannot keep the peace. Thus, in one recent notorious case, an elderly man who had been repeatedly burglarized and had received no meaningful assistance from the police, shot a pair of career burglars who had broken into his home. The man was sentenced to life in prison.

The British authorities warn the public incessantly about the dangers of following the American path on gun policy. But the Daily Telegraph (June 29, 2000) points out that "the main reason for a much lower burglary rate in America is householders' propensity to shoot intruders. They do so without fear of being dragged before courts and jailed for life."

So what's the government going to do to make voters safer? One solution came from the Home Office in April 1999 in the form of "Anti-Social Behaviour Orders" special court orders intended to deal with people who cannot be proven to have committed a crime, but whom the police want to restrict anyway. Behaviour Orders can, among other things, prohibit a person from visiting a particular street or premises, set a curfew, or lead to a person's eviction from his home.

Violation of a Behaviour Order can carry a prison sentence of up to five years.

Prime Minister Tony Blair is now proposing that the government be allowed to confine people proactively, based on the fears of their potential danger to society.

American anti-gun lobbyists have long argued that if America followed Britain's lead in severely restricting firearms possession and self-defense, then American crime rates would eventually match Britain's. The lobbyists have also argued that if guns were restricted in America, civil liberties in the U.S. would have the same degree of protection that they have in Britain. The lobbyists are absolutely right.

Dr. Paul Gallant practices optometry in Wesley Hills, N.Y. Dr. Joanne Eisen practices dentistry in Old Bethpage, N.Y. Both are research associates at the Independence Institute, where Dave Kopel is research director. Reprinted with permission of the authors.