Think Tough Gun Laws Keep Europeans Safe? Think Again...

It wasn't supposed to happen in England, with all its very strict gun control laws. And yet last week Derrick Bird shot and killed 12 people and wounded 11 others. A headline in The Times of London read: "Toughest laws in the world could not stop Cumbria tragedy."

Multiple victim public shootings were assumed to be an American thing for it is here the guns are, right? No, not at all. Contrary to public perception, Western Europe, where most countries have much tougher gun laws, has experienced many of the worst multiple victim public shootings. Particularly telling, all the multiple victim public shootings in Europe occurred where guns are banned. So it is in the United States, too -- all the multiple victim public shootings (where more than three people have been killed) have taken place where civilians are not allowed to have a gun.

Look at recent history. Where have the worst K-12 school shootings occurred? It has not been in the U.S. but Europe. The very worst one occurred in a high school in Erfurt, Germany in 2002, where 18 were killed. The second worst took place in Dunblane, Scotland in 1996, where 16 kindergarteners and their teacher were shot. The third worst high school attack, with 15 murdered, happened in Winnenden, Germany. The fourth worst shooting was in the U.S. -- Columbine High School in 1999, leaving 13 killed. The fifth worst school related murder spree, with 11 murdered, occurred in Emsdetten, Germany.

With three of the worst five attacks, Germany may be a surprise to those who believe in gun control. Even by European standards, Germany has some of the strictest gun control laws. Indeed, these laws are far stricter than existing gun control in the U.S., or for that matter, the restrictions currently being discussed in the United States.

Though not quite as tight as U.K. regulations, Germany has strict licensing and registration requirements. German licenses are only valid for three years and to obtain a gun license people must demonstrate such hard-to-define characteristics as trustworthiness as well as convince authorities that they have a necessity for a gun. This comes on top of requirements against mental disorders, drug or alcohol addictions, violence or aggressive tendencies, and felony convictions.

The attacks in Europe might not get as much attention in the U.S. or even in other countries in Europe besides where the attack occurred as the attack in the U.S., but multiple victim public shootings appear to be at least as common in Europe as they are here. The following is a partial list of attacks occurring in Europe since 2001. As mentioned, all of them occurred in gun free zones, places where guns in the hands of civilians were not allowed:

- Zug, Switzerland, September 27, 2001: a man murdered 15 members of a cantonal parliament.
- Tours, France, October 29, 2001: four people were killed and 10 wounded when a French railway worker started killing people at a busy intersection in the city.
- Nanterre, France, March 27, 2002: a man kills eight city councilors after a city council meeting.
- Erfurt, Germany on April 26, 2002: a former student kills 18 at a secondary school.
- Freising, Germany on February 19, 2002: Three people killed and one wounded.
- Turin, Italy on October 15, 2002: Seven people were killed on a hillside overlooking the city.
- Madrid, Spain, October 1, 2006: a man kills two employees and wounds another at a company that he was fired from.
- Emsdetten, Germany, November 20, 2006: a former student murders 11 people at a high school.
- Southern Finland, November 7, 2007: Seven students and the principal were killed at a high school.
- Naples, Italy, September 18, 2008: Seven dead and two seriously wounded in a public meeting hall (not included in totals below because it may possibly have involved the mafia).
- Kauhajoki, Finland, Sept. 23, 2008: 10 people were shot to death at a college.
Winnenden, Germany, March 11, 2009: a 17-year-old former student killed 15 people, including nine students and three teachers.
- Lyon, France, March 19, 2009: ten people injured after a man opened fire on a nursery school.
- Athens, Greece, April 10, 2009: three people killed and two people injured by a student at a vocational college.
- Rotterdam, Netherlands, April 11, 2009: three people killed and 1 injured at a crowded cafe.
Vienna, Austria, May 24, 2009: one dead and 16 wounded in an attack on a Sikh Temple.
- Espoo, Finland, Dec. 31, 2009: 4 killed while shopping at a mall on New Year's Eve.
- Cumbria, England, June 2, 2010: 12 people killed by a British taxi driver.

So how does this compare to the United States? The University of Chicago’s Bill Landes and I have collected data on all the multiple victim public shootings in the United States from 1977 to 1999 (for a discussion of that information see the newly revised third edition of my book "More Guns, Less Crime"). If we only examine those cases where 4 or more people have been killed in an attack, the worst such attack was the Luby's Cafeteria shooting in which 23 people died. On average 10.56 people have died each year,

One reason for limiting the cases to attacks with 4 or more deaths is that I haven't collected all the cases in Europe, and the quick review here will miss fewer of the larger cases.

Obviously, my list above for Western Europe will not have many cases where 4 or more people have been killed in a multiple victim public shooting, and I have not included attacks in Northern Ireland. That said, the average number for Europe over the 9.5 years from 2001 to the present is about 11.8 deaths per year -- essentially the same as the U.S. rate.

On the other hand, Western Europe’s population over the last decade is about 48 percent larger than the U.S. population over the earlier period (about 387 million to 262 million). To have the same per capita rate as the U.S., Western Europe would have had to experience one more shooting involving 4 people killed per year in six of the nine-and-a-half years. Whether a more detailed search would find that many more cases isn’t clear, but that is surely possible.

Large multiple victim public shootings are exceedingly rare events, but they garner massive news attention and the ingrained misperceptions they produce are hard to erase.

When I have been interviewed by foreign journalists, including those from Germany, they usually start off by asking for my opinion as to why multiple victim public shootings are such an American problem.

And of course, they are astonished when I remind of attacks in their own countries and I point out that this is a universal problem, but with a common factor: the attacks take place where civilians are banned from carrying guns.

John R. Lott, Jr. is a contributor. He is an economist and author of "More Guns, Less Crime."(University of Chicago Press, 2010), the third edition of which was published in May."

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