A deadly collection: Shutterstock
Gun crime is an emotive topic, and one that, due to recent events in Paris, Colorado and San Bernardino is again in the headlines. These mass killings, although clearly motivated by different factors and political contexts, represent the extreme of gun crime – gun facilitated homicide. It has been estimated that more than 5000 gun homicides occur across the EU each year. However, guns are also used during other forms of non-lethal violent crimes (e.g. armed robbery, threats to kill) to instil fear in, or exert control over, victims. Recent events show, that gun crime (i.e. non-accidental use of a firearm, within a crime, regardless of whether the gun was legally owned or illegally obtained), and gun homicides are a global issue, regardless of how stringent local gun controls are.
Arguments exist concerning whether guns, per se, are the problem, with many commentators proposing that ‘people kill people’; that these atrocities would occur through other means, were guns not readily available to those who chose to then use them to kill. Others suggest that in countries where gun homicides occur so infrequently, and represent such a small proportion of violent crime, such as the UK, that the issue of gun crime is of no interest. However, recent events show that gun crime can be both a local issue, involving isolated individuals responding to a specific matter, and a transnational issue in which the political context in one country leads to retaliatory gun violence in another.
Although the role of guns in criminal and accidental woundings and deaths in the USA attracts considerable attention and commentary, the European context surrounding gun crime is less well understood, and researched. Events in the EU in the last 12 months, however, highlight the need to obtain a clearer understanding of how best to combat gun crime in this region. The EU-ISEC funded EFFECT (Examination of Forensics and Firearms in Europe and aCross Territories) project led by Professor Erica Bowen and Helen Poole at Coventry University, aims to understand how best to combat crime commissioned by individuals who are armed with guns – gun crime, in its broadest definition. In addition, with our subcontractor Arquebus Solutions, and collaborators at Italy’s Calabria University and Serbia’s National Criminalistic Technical Centre, we are interested in the extent to which the sharing of ballistics data (information obtained from gun cartridges and bullets after a firearm has been fired) across borders could help to detect and prevent gun crime, through the linking of multiple crimes to individual weapons. The first phase of our research is complete. Interviews have been conducted with policy makers, police, forensic laboratory technicians and non-governmental organisations in 13 countries.
Our preliminary interview findings suggest that the extent to which the use of guns in crime is acknowledged as a problem and the level of data collected by individual countries varies considerably, with some countries not specifically identifying the use of guns in crime at all. In other countries firearms offences are clearly separately identified within legislation, and incidents appropriately counted, although the methods of counting vary locally. Given the variation in identification and definition, it is not surprising that legislative responses vary. However, within countries that have signed up to European directives the view is that legislation is strong and appropriate, although the on-the-ground response and implementation of the legislation varies.
2015 Chattanooga between an assailant, police, marines and a naval officer: Katherine Welles/Shutterstock
Although we may compartmentalise the events in the US from those closer to home, our preliminary findings point to the fact that the legislative context in the US may indeed facilitate the ability of individuals within other countries and continents to access firearms through the so-called ‘dark web’. Stakeholders have suggested that even in countries where gun controls are tight (more typically in Northern Europe), the internet can be used to purchase complete weapons, or parts of firearms for assembly, from countries where controls are less restrictive and these weapons can then be used to commit crimes elsewhere.
Gun crime, including gun violence is a global issue. It seems that technology may be further breaking down perceived geographical borders in order to facilitate the illegal movement of firearms. What is needed is a harmonised global acknowledgement that the use of firearms to commit crime is contrary to local law, in order that unified responses can be developed to prevent gun crime in the future. This does not mean banning all firearms, as research shows that where legal gun ownership is tightly controlled and monitored, gun crime is less prevalent. Indeed, in some countries banning firearms would incur costs that outweighed any potential benefit in the context of reducing gun crime. Attention needs to focus on how to make accessing guns more difficult for those intent on using them in crime, as well as those who may access them legitimately yet pose a threat in countries where firearms legislation is weak.