Gun Control Misfires in Europe

European gun laws have everything American gun control proponents advocate. Yet, the three very worst public shootings in the last year all occurred in Europe. Indeed around the world, from Australia to England, countries that have recently strengthened gun control laws with the promise of lowering crime have instead seen violent crime soar.

Sixteen people were killed during last Friday’s public school shooting in Germany. Compare that to the United States with almost five times as many students, where 32 students and four teachers were killed from any type of gun death at elementary and secondary schools from August 1997 through February 2002, almost five school years. This total includes not only much publicized public school shootings but also gang fights, robberies, accidents. It all corresponds to an annual rate of one student death per five million students and one teacher death per 4.13 million teachers.

In Europe shootings have not been limited to schools, of course. The other two worst public shootings were the killing of 14 regional legislators in Zug, a Swiss canton, last September and the massacre of eight city council members in a Paris suburb last month.

So one must automatically assume that European gun laws are easy. Wrong. Germans who wish to get hold of a hunting rifle must undergo checks that can last a year, while those wanting a gun for sport must be a member of a club and obtain a license from the police. The French must apply for gun permits, which are granted only after an exhaustive background and medical record check and demonstrated need. After all that, permits are only valid for three years.

Even Switzerland's once famously liberal laws have become tighter. In 1999 Switzerland's federation ended policies in half the cantons where concealed handguns were unregulated and allowed to be carried anywhere. Even in many cantons where regulations had previously existed, they had been only relatively liberal. Swiss federal law now severely limits permits only to those who can demonstrate in advance a need for a weapon to protect themselves or others against a precisely specified danger.

All three killing sprees shared one thing in common: they took place in so-called gun-free "safe zones." The attraction of gun-free zone is hardly surprising as guns surely make it easier to kill people, but guns also make it much easier for people to defend themselves. Yet, with "gun-free zones," as with many other gun laws, it is law-abiding citizens, not would-be criminals, who obey them. Hence, these laws risk leaving potential victims defenseless.

After a long flirtation with "safe zones," many Americans have learned their lesson the hard way. The U.S. has seen a major change from 1985 when just eight states had the most liberal right-to-carry laws--laws that automatically grant permits once applicants pass a criminal background check, pay their fees, and, when required, complete a training class. Today the total is 33 states. Deaths and injuries from multiple-victim public shootings, like the three in Europe, fell on average by 78% in states that passed such laws.

The lesson extends more broadly. Violent crime is becoming a major problem in Europe. While many factors, such as law enforcement, drug gangs, and immigration, affect crime, the lofty promises of gun controllers can no longer be taken seriously.

In 1996, the U.K. banned handguns. Prior to that time, over 54,000 Britons owned such weapons. The ban is so tight that even shooters training for the Olympics were forced to travel to other countries to practice. In the four years since the ban, gun crimes have risen by an astounding 40%. Dave Rogers, vice chairman of London's Metropolitan Police Federation, said that the ban made little difference to the number of guns in the hands of criminals. . . . "The underground supply of guns does not seem to have dried up at all."

The United Kingdom now leads the United States by a wide margin in robberies and aggravated assaults. Although murder and rape rates are still higher in the United States, the difference is shrinking quickly.

Australia also passed severe gun restrictions in 1996, banning most guns and making it a crime to use a gun defensively. In the subsequent four years, armed robberies rose by 51%, unarmed robberies by 37%, assaults by 24%, and kidnappings by 43%. While murders fell by 3%, manslaughter rose by 16%.

Both the U.K. and Australia have been thought to be ideal places for gun control as they are surrounded by water, making gun smuggling relatively difficult. Of course, advocates of gun control look for ways to get around any evidence. Publications such as the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times blame Europe's increasing crime problems on a seemingly unstoppable black market that "has undercut . . . strict gun-control laws." Let's say that's the case--even then, these gun laws clearly did not deliver the promised reductions in crime.

It is hard to think of a much more draconian police state than the former Soviet Union, yet despite a ban on guns that dates back to the communist revolution, newly released data suggest that the "worker's paradise" was less than the idyllic picture painted by the regime in yet another respect: murder rates were high. During the entire decade from 1976 to 1985 the Soviet Union's homicide rate was between 21% and 41% higher than that of the United States. By 1989, two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union, it had risen to 48% above U.S. rate.

In fact, the countries with by far the highest homicide rates have gun bans. Many popular discussions cherry pick a half dozen or so countries and fail to account for any other factors that determine crime. But research such as Jeff Miron's forthcoming paper in the U.S. Journal of Law and Economics examines data for all the available countries and finds that countries with stricter gun control tend to have higher homicide rates.

While Friday's shooting in Germany was followed later that same day with the passage of even stricter gun laws, increased crime in Europe is causing new center-right governments to rethink the previous approach of having reflexive support for more anti-gun laws. Just last week Italian Defense Minister Antonio Martino suggested that Italy model its laws after the U.S.'s 2nd Amendment, which protects the right of citizens to bear arms.

The growing fears of crime may have been responsible for Jean-Marie Le Pen's upset second place showing in France¹s presidential elections. As 58-year-old mother of two in France said: "my son was last week mugged--just for a cigarette! I've never done this before and you may not like to hear it, but I'm voting for Le Pen."

Hopefully this will be only an aberration and the response will be more along the lines offered by the libertarian Mr. Martino. The way to curb crime is by enabling decent, law-abiding citizens to defend themselves.

John R. Lott, Jr., is a resident scholar at AEI.

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