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Why a Florida-type shooting is less likely in the UK

The gun laws are so restrictive in the UK that during the 2012 Olympics in London, the government had to make a special allowance for foreign participants in shooting events to practice. If guns are difficult for citizens to legally acquire, they are also less visible on the police. The UK model of policing views police officers as citizens in uniform – they exercise their powers to police their fellow citizens with the implicit consent of their fellow citizens.

analysis Updated: Feb 18, 2018 09:10 IST
Prasun Sonwalkar
Prasun Sonwalkar
Hindustan Times
Florida shooting,Florida school shooting,Mohinder Surdhar
A woman walks her dog past police officers outside Stamford Bridge stadium in London in December 2017. To visitors, it is something of a surprise to see policemen smiling and having relaxed conversation with tourists and onlookers (AFP)

For years, Mohinder Surdhar was just another physiotherapist practising in Birmingham; the Dr prefixing his name lent him credibility. But until recently, few were aware of his double life as a key link in the sale of illegal arms and ammunition to the United Kingdom’s criminal underworld. Surdhar was the salesman to one Paul Edmunds, who had a gun factory in Gloucester. Edmunds sourced, purchased, imported and supplied Surdhar prohibited guns and ammunition for onward sale. The arms they sold were linked to more than 100 crimes across the country, including the 2011 Birmingham riots. After a complex investigation, Surdhar got 14 years in jail in January, while Edmunds was put away for 30 years, making them an unlikely duo in the annals of the UK’s gun culture, which remains at a far lower level than that in the United States.

There are reasons why instances such as this week’s Florida school shootings are less likely in the UK and Europe. As a society with a culture of rule of law, arms are widely frowned upon and there is tight legal and executive control over the sale and purchase of arms and ammunition. This creates demand in criminal networks for illegal arms that Surdhar and Edmunds exploited for money. Laws restricting possession of arms have been in place in Britain since the assassination of William of Orange in 1584 with a concealed wheel lock pistol, when Queen Elizabeth I, fearing assassination by Roman Catholics, banned possession of such pistols near a royal palace. Over centuries and decades, new laws have made possession of arms ever more restrictive, resulting in the UK having one of the lowest records of gun-related crime in the world (the laws are less restrictive in Northern Ireland).

The gun laws are so restrictive that during the 2012 Olympics in London, the government had to make a special allowance for foreign participants so that they could practise for shooting events. There is growing concern over knife and acid-related crime, but latest Home Office figures show that firearms offences make up a small proportion of overall recorded crime: they decreased by 34% over the last decade. Mass shootings remain unlikely, but they are not unknown in the UK. There have been three mass shootings since 1980: in Hungerford in 1987; in a school in Dunblane in 1996; and the Cumbria shootings of 2010.

If guns are difficult for citizens to legally acquire, they are also less visible on the police, who are not routinely armed. Deploying armed police remains unusual and a matter of controversy, mainly due to the Peelian model of policing the community by respect and consent rather than at the point of a gun. The unique model includes nine principles first issued in 1829 when Robert Peel was the home secretary. It views police officers as citizens in uniform – they exercise their powers to police their fellow citizens with their implicit consent.

The nine principles include the idea to “seek and preserve public favour, not by pandering to public opinion; but by constantly demonstrating absolutely impartial service to law, in complete independence of policy, and without regard to the justice or injustice of the substance of individual laws, by ready offering of individual service and friendship to all members of the public without regard to their wealth or social standing, by ready exercise of courtesy and friendly good humour; and by ready offering of individual sacrifice in protecting and preserving life”.

The ease of acquisition and possession of arms in the United States is no doubt a key factor in mass shootings, but in the UK, tight legal control alone does not explain why such massacres are unlikely, even if not impossible. The core values of a society are equally responsible. To visitors, it is something of a surprise to see policemen, even some with formidable-looking firearms, smiling and having relaxed conversations with tourists and onlookers outside the entrance to 10, Downing Street, often addressing them as Sir. The success of this police-public relationship is seen in everyday life, in the easy, friendly and sometimes humorous interaction between the two, including in the aftermath of the terror attacks across the UK in 2017.

prasun.sonwalkar@hindustantimes.com

First Published: Feb 17, 2018 18:07 IST