Britain has the strictest gun control laws in Europe largely due to two rampage killings. After the Hungerford Massacre in 1987, semi-automatic and pump action shotguns were banned. Then 10 years later, handguns were also outlawed after the Dunblane school shootings.
Peter Squires, a professor of criminology at the University of Brighton, says the slaughter of 16 kindergarten-age children was a turning point in the history of British gun control.
"It was so appalling it galvanized a real national reaction,” he says. “There was a profound sense that we didn’t want to go down the American gun culture pathway.”
Britain has certainly diverged from the United States in some aspects of its gun control, which many Americans might find rather alien and intrusive. Take the police inspections: In many parts of the U.K., a police officer will visit your home and examine your gun cabinet to make sure it is secure before you get a license.
Britain is not the only European country to tighten up its gun laws after a spree killing. Finland, France, Germany, Portugal and Denmark have all made it tougher to own a firearm in recent years, a process that is much easier in Europe than in the United States. Keith Krause of the Small Arms Survey in Geneva says Europeans do not have a constitutional right to bear arms.
"All throughout Europe gun ownership is treated as a privilege and not a right," says Krause. “And you have to demonstrate and justify your need or desire to have a weapon.”
As a result, gun ownership is much lower in Europe. Britain has six registered firearms for every 100 people; Germany has 30; France has 31; while the United States has 88 -- the highest level of civilian gun ownership in the world. Keith Krause says that gun availability is one of the factors that helps explain why firearm violence is a bigger problem in the U.S. than Europe. In 2009, Britain had 138 gun deaths; in the same year, the U.S. had almost 10,000. The U.S. population is about five times the size of the United Kingdom's.
But a plethora of legally held guns does not automatically translate into crime. Switzerland, for example, is awash with weapons. Under the Swiss defense system, millions of military firearms are held by reservists in their own homes; and yet the country has only an average number of gun homicides.
Gun control expert Owen Greene says Swiss citizens -- even Swiss criminals -- have a very special attitude to their military weapons.
“Nearly all Swiss males have guns,” he says. "But even the criminals would never dream of using their military weapons to commit a crime because that would be unpatriotic. They would tend to go to the illegal market.”
Tougher laws cannot prevent every rampage killing. The worst civilian gun massacre in recent years -- in which 69 people died -- happened in Norway, which, next to Britain, has the strictest gun restrictions in Europe.