LONDON — On New Year’s Eve two teenage girls seeking fresh air from a party in Birmingham were killed in a shooting incident. Over 30 shots, some by a submachine gun, were fired in what seems to have been a shootout between rival gangs. The incident has led to demands that the crime of possessing an illegal weapon should be punished by a mandatory five-year prison sentence and that further curbs be placed on the import of gun replicas that can be quickly altered into real guns.
The media in Britain have raised fears that the gun crime and gang problem will soon rival that of Chicago and Los Angeles. Britain does indeed face a serious problem over guns, but the situation is nowhere near as bad as in the United States, where the gun culture, aided and abetted by the National Rifle Association — which to many in Britain seems not just mistaken but evil — seems to be an accepted element in society and where gun-related crimes are far more frequent than in Britain.
Various explanations are given for the growth in crimes involving guns. One plausible reason is the climate of violence and the gun culture depicted by television programs and cinema films, glamorizing the possession and use of guns, largely but not entirely stemming from the U.S.
Another important element is the breakdown in social values as a result of broken families, the spread of drug addiction and unemployment. But the basic fact is that guns have become readily available in the underworld and can be bought for small sums of money easily obtained through petty crime.
Following the massacre of school children at Dunblane in Scotland, the laws controlling the possession of guns in Britain were tightened, but gun-related crimes have nevertheless grown by some 40 percent since the incident.
There are various sources for the guns used by criminals in Britain. Some come from the conflicts in the Balkans, especially in recent years from the fighting in Kosovo. Another source is thought to be Afghanistan from which hard drugs are exported. Inevitably Albanian and Afghan refugees, rightly or wrongly, have been accused of being a prime source. But there is another source closer to home — Northern Ireland, where the Protestant and Catholic paramilitaries have still not given up their arms or finally renounced violence.
The Irish Republican Army not so long ago was able to get arms and explosives from Libya and during the Cold War from Czechoslovakia. This trade has stopped, but the IRA seems to have been involved in the insurgency in Colombia and there may well be Latin American and Caribbean sources of small arms and explosives.
Gun-related crime has been rising in European countries as well as in Japan. According to a recent press report, highway robbery has doubled in Japan in the past five years while arrests and prosecution have fallen by 20 percent. Not all of the increase in crime in Japan is gun-related. Nor, as alleged by some Japanese, is the increase in crime to be ascribed entirely to foreigners.
Life in Japan and in Britain remains safer than in most parts of the U.S. But we have no reason to be complacent. The provision of security cameras and burglar alarms is now big business in Britain and a growing business in Japan. Access to buildings and compounds is increasingly regulated not merely to deter terrorism but also to stop burglars.
In British shops and department stores, customers are supervised by video cameras, and goods are electronically tagged so that shoplifters can be caught when they try to leave without paying. Main streets are controlled by security cameras while police cameras are an increasing feature on British roads. These are designed essentially to catch motorists who fail to observe speed limits, jump traffic lights or drive illegally in bus lanes.
There will be a huge increase in the number of cameras in use from next month when all vehicles entering the “congestion zone” in central London will be photographed and fines levied on vehicle owners who have not paid the daily congestion charge. Such cameras can also be used to help police catch criminals. Privacy and civil liberties are inevitably being sacrificed in the fight against terrorism and crime.
The problem of preventing the proliferation of guns requires action at the international level as well as the national. Unfortunately, the arms trade has been a profitable one for many European and U.S. companies. It has also been exploited by Russia, China and North Korea. The “merchants of death” won’t give up their profits without a struggle.
The United Nations has managed to impose embargoes on the export of weapons to some “rogue states,” but states such as North Korea regularly evade such embargoes and Russian companies have been adept at bypassing controls. The enforcement of embargoes by the U.N. needs to be much more effectively monitored and policed, but controls on heavy weapons or biological and chemical components are inadequate.
An agreement needs to be reached to limit the export of small arms, including not just machine guns and grenades but also weapons-grade explosives, rifles and pistols. All such exports should be publicly declared and registered with an international agency and the importing state made to certify that the weapons in question will only be available to police and armed forces under strict controls.
An international agreement covering the trade in small arms will be very difficult to achieve and to police. All the major powers will be under strong pressure from their arms manufacturers to oppose vigorously such an agreement. They will argue mistakenly — as the U.S. has done in the case of biological and chemical weapons — that inspection procedures would be intrusive, impinge on intellectual property rights and be ineffective because other countries will flout any such agreement.
Any proposal to limit the trade in small arms is also likely to be dismissed as utopian and unrealistic. No doubt it will take a long time to reach any international agreement covering the trade in small arms, but an attempt should still be made so that terrorists and criminals have more difficulty in obtaining such weapons. Perhaps Japan, which does not export weapons, could take the initiative at the U.N.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.