Common grief.

Photographer: Dan Kitwood

After a Killing, Here's One Debate the U.K. Isn't Having

Therese Raphael writes editorials on European politics and economics for Bloomberg View. She was editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe.
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Though it is only days after the worst mass shooting in U.S. history, Americans aren't too numb to share a sense of solidarity with Britain over the murder of the Labour Party politician Jo Cox. Former U.S. Representative Gabby Giffords, who was shot by a would-be assassin in 2011, summed up the reaction of many with a tweet:

Even if over a third of Americans think that mass shootings "are just a fact of life in the U.S. today," killing still jars deeply.

But while Americans and Britons share a common language of grief -- both lay wreaths, conduct vigils and vow solidarity with the victims of hate crimes -- there is also a crucial difference. In the U.S., grief becomes entangled in the divisive and inevitably ugly debate over guns. Killings are a cue for ritualistic finger-pointing. If the U.K. were the U.S., many citizens would have said that Jo Cox should have had a weapon to defend herself.

Nobody is making that case in the U.K., which has one of the lowest rates of gun crime anywhere. Any question over where to draw the line between the right to own a gun and the government’s responsibility to fight crime was pretty much settled after a school massacre in Dunblane, Scotland in 1996. Shortly afterward, the U.K. adopted some of the most stringent gun laws anywhere.

British police officers  (except in Northern Ireland) are generally unarmed. Semi-automatic weapons are prohibited, with exceptions made for those used for the humane killing of animals or by elite sports teams. Even low-power air rifles and pistols are controlled, requiring a firearms certificate issued by the police. A shotgun certificate is required for shotguns with a capacity of three rounds or less. Many Britons enjoy shooting for sport – grouse and clay pigeons mainly, rather than the firing range -- but America’s bitter fight over the right to bear arms is absent. As the government's own guidance on firearms licensing says:

Gun ownership is a privilege, not a right. Firearms control in the U.K. is among the toughest in the world, and as a result firearms offenses continue to make up a small proporation (less than 0.2 percent) of recorded crime.

Even the exception, Northern Ireland, seems to prove the rule. With its history of sectarian violence, Northern Ireland has much less restrictive gun laws and is the only part of the country where "personal protection" is considered a legitimate reason for obtaining a firearm. Even so, the police have to deem that the person applying for the firearm for that reason has a "verifiable specific risk" against which protection is required.

Like all advanced countries, the U.K. has its share of violent crime and by some counts it has been on the rise. After a decade-long decline, gun crime is up in England and Wales by 1.2 percent in the 12 months up to February 2016, according the Office of National Statistics. Whether this is a trend is difficult to say. Certainly a rise in gang-related violence in Manchester and London has been a problem. But gun deaths in the U.K. are still low:

Jo Cox's murder wasn't a typical shooting even in the U.K. MPs like her hold regular public consultations and walk around unprotected by police or guards. That kind of openness is possible because crime against political figures is a rarity, the last deadly one being the murder of the Conservative politician Ian Gow by the Irish Republican Army in 1990. Thursday’s killing will raise legitimate questions about the quality of policing and intelligence and about the protection of public officials. But I’d wager that there will be no serious arguments about gun ownership for personal defense.

American sympathy at Jo Cox’s murder is heartfelt. Americans, after all, know not just the personal devastation, but the impact on communities caused by hate crimes. But they cannot be shocked in the same way that Britons are; gun deaths are too common in the U.S. And they cannot push aside political differences in the same way, as they did after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, or as the French did after the Paris attacks last November or even as the British campaigners are doing in the bitter battle over whether to leave the EU, because in the war over guns, no ground can be ceded.

Many in the U.K. will be grateful for the show of solidarity, and quietly relieved that as divided as the country is over Europe and other issues, this is one debate it doesn’t need to have.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Therese Raphael at traphael4@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Jonathan Landman at jlandman4@bloomberg.net